What's the point of better service if people don't notice?

A week ago, the MTA held yet another press conference to announce yet another month of improving subway service. Afterwards, reporters did what they do and went to subway stations to ask riders: do you notice?

Here, for example, is AMNY:

But many riders waiting for their trains on Monday said they are still waiting to feel that lift — especially with another fare hike coming at the end of the month.

“I would say definitely not, they’re wrong,” said Kyle McCarthy, 30 who lives upstate and commutes to his job as an elevator mechanic in the city. “And with proposed rate hikes coming up, I would expect them to be a lot better than 75 percent.”


“I haven’t noticed a change,” said Doug Ray, 61, of Fort George in upper Manhattan. “I have lived here for 40 years; it’s par for the course. The city has all kinds of frustrations and you just deal with it.”

At the press conference, Andy Byford had a different take. He said people regularly come up to him and are increasingly saying “you know what? It’s getting better.”

Rather than try to reconcile this discrepancy, I want to focus on a related question. Certainly some people notice things are getting better, but many appear not to. How much does it matter?

Not too long ago, I was on the train and thoroughly engrossed in a David Sedaris essay and guffawing like an idiot (this is not a literary review newsletter, but it was Six to Eight Black Men) so much so that I didn’t even notice, until I arrived late for a meeting, that my subway trip took about 15 minutes longer than normal. Contrast that to last week, reading a book I was not particularly into, when I was filled with angst when the dwell time at Franklin Ave stretched beyond one minute. Objectively, my Sedaris trip was a far worse subway performance. Subjectively, that freaking Franklin Ave dwell still irks me because I really had to pee.

And if we’re talking about meltdowns, or Major Incidents as the MTA calls them, then it comes down to our ability to coalesce anecdotal evidence—how often did my train screw up last month, last year, etc.?—into a narrative about subway service as a whole, a massive system which each individual rider only experiences a tiny fraction of. Every single rider’s perception of this issue, taken on its own, is fatally flawed as an overarching analysis. How many times have you gotten to work just fine only to hear a coworker bemoaning their nightmare commute, or vice versa?

This isn’t a queston people are good at intuiting. When you ask the average New Yorker something along the lines of “Do you think the subway is getting better?” in my experience they don’t think very hard before answering, and they typically will then start telling you stories about their recent subway trips, some of which have nothing to do with the actual service. This is akin to asking a random person, “How’s the economy doing?” They probably haven’t the slightest clue what the latest GDP or CPI figures are, but they know if they have a job or if they can pay their mortgage.

So, OK: MTA stats are giving us a clear picture, and most people don’t know what they’re talking about. Just ignore what the people say, right?

Well, what’s the point of better service if nobody notices?

I don’t pose this question to demoralize my MTA employee readers. But I do think it’s an important consideration: how do you win the trust of riders who are preternaturally predisposed to distrust you? How much improvement is enough to flip the narrative? What is the threshold where people start to notice? Is it a realistic one?

I don’t have the answers to those questions. My guess is riders don’t react positively when presented with these statistics because our rides have not gotten 15, 20, or 25 percent better as the various MTA statistics seemingly imply (they don’t actually say this, but numerical literacy is yet another weak point of the human mind; it would behoove the MTA, for many reasons, to start reporting train run times, which are both easy to understand—it took xx minutes to get from here to there is a metric that needs no explanation—and separate train performance from schedule adjustments). Nor do riders like fare hikes.

I was reminded of this issue later in the week when Assembly Member Rodneyse Bichotte, who represents a chunk of Flatbush with eight subway stops, ranted against congestion pricing:

Right now, I’m going to go with my constituents. Right now, we’re not in favor of congestion pricing in its form as it is today. But we are certainly for fixing the issue of our roads and streets being overpopulated and fixing the subway. Subways need to be fixed! We need to find ways, alternative funding. The “millionaire’s tax.” That’s one way we can go about funding our broken subway system. You have to understand, everyone, the outer boroughs have been ignored for a very long time. OK? Low-income people of color have been dealing with our public systems for many many years, 30, 40 years. Completely ignored. We on the state level have been funding the MTA with billions and billions of dollars in capital. Fares have been increased. In my district, we had workers’ jobs taken away. Subway station workers have been closed down. My constituents are asking, “If we are increasing the fares, where is it going? How come we’ve been yelling for years — 30, 40 years to fund our MTA — and nothing has been done?” And now, people are looking to tax people who are mostly vulnerable. So there’s a lot of issues. Again, we all want the same thing. We want to move New York City more efficiently and expediently, but not at the cost of our working families.”

Her general contention that her constituents will be harmed by congestion pricing is not supported by the facts. This prompted me to pose this question on Twitter:

To which non-voting MTA board member Norman Brown, who represents the Metro-North riders, replied:

Brown’s reply prompted me to re-visit Bichotte’s remarks. There’s something deeper going on here. She’s not really talking about congestion pricing. What she’s saying is she believes her constituents harbor deep, long-standing animosity towards the MTA, which is almost certainly true. That is the basis of her opposition.

Indeed, politicians “always have the MTA to blame,” as Brown put it, because their constituents are always more than happy to blame the MTA. Which then gives politicians implicit permission to abdicate their collective responsibility to oversee the transit authority, refuse to fund it in a consistent, predictable manner, and ensure they’re putting it in a position where it can succeed.

This is not to say the MTA is faultless for what ails it—if you’re thinking that’s my point, welcome, you must be new around here—but that any public authority needs oversight, proper governance, and political accountability to succeed. When the conversation begins and ends with some version of “the MTA sucks,” it perpetuates a vicious cycle, one we had the pleasure of witnessing within the span of a few days.

This has shifted my perspective on the issue a bit. I now realize this is far more of a battle for hearts and minds than I previously considered. The MTA’s challenge now, and perhaps its biggest one yet, is to get people to believe in it. In the end, this may prove an even harder task than running the trains on time.

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News You Probably Can't Use, But About Which You Can Certainly Brood

  • The Automatic Train Supervision system (ATS), which monitors train locations on the numbered lines, went down twice this week, once on Thursday at 11 AM and again on Friday around 9 AM. The cause of both system failures were officially listed as “software events,” which, incidentally, was also the cause of my 2009 HP laptop being a piece of crap. How does NYCT troubleshoot when the computerized monitoring system for all the numbered lines go down?

    Yes, that’s right, the good ol’ fashioned power cycle, the reboot, the restart, turning it off and on again, the same thing your insufferable internet company customer service rep tells you when your internet isn’t working. Because at the end of the day, computers are computers, and whether it’s your cat video delivery machine or the one that facilitates getting millions of people around America’s biggest city (equally important tasks, if I do say so myself), it’s still just a computer.

  • Spotted in the committee materials for this month: 123 new buses going on the M15 and B44 SBS lines are being equipped with automatic bus lane camera enforcement technology! These cameras, installed on the front of buses, can automatically issue tickets to vehicles illegally parked in bus lanes.

    This is potentially big news for faster buses, although I’m puzzled by the fact that this is apparently yet another “pilot program,” even though NYCT tested this very technology from the exact same company in 2010 during another pilot program. The MTA doesn’t really explain why this needs to be a pilot program other than to say they have to “evaluate the system’s ability to identify violations and improve bus speeds,” but the 2010 pilot already evaluated whether the technology worked (it does) and even if it doesn’t improve bus speeds (it does) who cares? Ticketing vehicles for violating the law is an important civic function in its own right.

  • The really insidious part of Cuomo’s involvement with the MTA, as Paul Berger illustrated in his WSJ article, is that the Governor can argue he’s just asking for common-sense improvements or better coordination between departments when in actuality he’s completely changing the dynamic of who makes decisions and how.

  • As Second Ave Sagas pointed out, 63 percent of NYC voters disapprove of Cuomo’s handling of the MTA and 53 percent statewide disapprove (source). Yet, as we all know, Cuomo suffered precisely zero repercussions at the ballot box. As far as I see it, this is the crux of Corey Johnson’s municipal takeover plan: would this dynamic significantly change if it was the mayor instead? To put it another way, would voters punish the mayor for his/her handling of transportation issues any more than the governor? The answer isn’t obviously yes, since a lot of issues influence voters aside from transportation.

  • Transportation analyst Charles Komanoff estimated that equipping lines with CBTC that don’t currently have them will lead to approximately 20 percent quicker trips.

  • There’s a fine line between building coalitions and horse-trading. I’m afraid meeting with outer-borough electeds to discuss, among other things, subsidized for-hire vehicle rides in exchange for their congestion pricing support is on the wrong side of that line, but reduced fares for riding the commuter rails within the five boroughs is firmly within the “building coalitions” territory.

  • The Transit Museum in Grand Central is running a photo exhibition on the subway cars that get dumped into the ocean to become artificial reefs through June.

  • Should serial sex offenders be banned from the subway? That is the question posed by a new city council bill. It seems to me this is not the best way to address a very real problem. Most sexual offenses committed on the subway are misdemeanors, so offenders spend very little time, if any, in jail. The more sensible policy here is to make repeat offenses felonies with jail time, which also doesn’t pose the burdensome enforcement question of just how, exactly, you ban specific people from the subway system. Also, I simply don’t like the precedent of banning a certain group of people from mass transportation. Anyways, the bill was proposed by Chaim Deutsch, a city councilman who at a recent hearing admitted he almost exclusively drives.

  • New York City spent $44 million on operating subsidies for NYC Ferry in 2018 and a total of $582 million on the service to date, according to The Post, all to provide a service that transports fewer riders every day than about a dozen individual bus routes.

    To put this annual operating subsidy in perspective, in 2014 the MTA increased L train service by 53 round trips per weekend and three round trips per weekday, for a total annual cost of $1.7 million. This is very back-of-the-envelope stuff—the L is a short line so a round-trip costs less in electricity, labor costs, and car maintenance—but at that rate, $44 million could pay for 91,520 extra subway round trips per year, or 1,760 per week. Even half that number would still amount to a nice service boost in service, particularly for late nights and weekends when scheduled headways leave a lot to be desired.

  • Remember when Andy Byford said he would be hiring a third-party independent consultant outside of New York politics to review the new L tunnel plan, and then got shuffled off the L tunnel project, and then the independent consultant to be chosen by Byford became an “independent” consultant chosen by the MTA board from a list provided by MTA management, and the “independent” consultant wasn’t going to review the merits of the project but just monitor the work going on? Well, the MTA has finally chosen who that consultant is (JMT of New York, Inc.) and will be paying them $1.2 million for the work nobody seems to particularly want that badly anymore. Some board members are pretty pissed off that the scope of this independent consultant has been so significantly reduced. From the WSJ:

    Andrew Saul, an MTA board member who represents Westchester County, said in an interview that the consultant’s role is “a total waste of money, frankly, and a total waste of time.”

    This, ladies and gentlemen, is the MTA’s problems in a nutshell: spending $1.2 million on something three degrees separated from it original purpose and nobody seems to want anymore just because they said they were going to do it.

Weekly Anti-Hudson Yards Link

In short, the Vessel is a vessel of its time, and its sheer shittiness as architecture and urbanism, itself a small part of the bigger tyranny of capitalism, at least invites us to dream of something, anything, better than this.

-Kate Wagner in The Baffler

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

As always, head over to Subway Weekender for all your unofficial weekend and late night service advisory breakdowns

This Time Last Year

One of my favorite newsletters, Oversharing, has a section called This Time Last Year. It’s a great idea. I’m stealing it.

I didn’t plan it this way, but I wrote about another vicious cycle this time last year, specifically about buses:

The idea that buses aren’t “sexy” is so internalized in American culture that even advocates for expanded bus service like Levine recite it. The conventional wisdom that buses aren’t “sexy” is a self-defeating cycle, in which perception begets reality which reinforces the perception. Nobody appears willing to break the vicious circle. The fixes aren’t complicated or expensive, particularly by NYC transit standards, but they require determination, political will, and a holistic vision, all traits NYC’s bus landscape is horribly lacking.

The major news items were:

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: Corey Hartmann

This has been another edition of Signal Problems, a weekly newsletter helping you figure out what is going on with the subway, made every week by Aaron Gordon. Read on the web or view the archives at signalproblems.nyc.

If you’re enjoying this newsletter, please share it with others. It’s the best way you can say thanks.

As always, send any feedback, subway questions, or Dog in a Bag photos to signalproblems@substack.com. I’d love to hear from you. As someone on a stalled Q train once told me, we’re all in this together.  

"It's setting the table": A Q&A with Corey Johnson on his transportation plan

“Before I was speaker,” Corey Johnson recalls midway through our interview about his plan to re-imagine the city’s transportation landscape, “I was at an event in the East Village. And I caught the 14A on Avenue A. It was like 11:30 at night. I was sitting on the bus and I’m so tired taking the bus and I’m just, like, sitting there reading on my phone and this woman gets on the bus and she’s looking at me. I don’t know her, I’m kind of like, why is she looking at me?

“And she goes, ‘Mr. Johnson?!’ And I say, ‘Yes?’ She goes, ‘You take the bus?!’”

Johnson does the voices as he tells this story. A weary, sad-sack imitation of his own as it might have sounded that night and a high pitch inflection to imitate the way an older lady might sound when encountering a council member on a local bus at 11:30 PM.

If nothing else, Johnson wants you to know that he rides the buses and subways. That he’s never owned a car. That even as City Council Speaker who gets an NYPD detail, he still tries to take the subway to work as often as he can. The implication being that it’s self-evident to him, as with every other New Yorker who relies on the MTA, that the status quo is untenable.

He repeated these notes about his life a few times during our interview to discuss his transportation report, which details how municipal control for the subways and buses could happen. It also re-imagines the city’s streets towards pedestrian, bus, and bike usage, away from car-centricity.

I left the conversation with a better understanding of what this report is supposed to be. It’s a conversation starter, or as Johnson put it, “setting the table.” It’s so people like me can never again write, as I did in the mailbag back in January when someone asked about municipal control, that no one has put together a serious proposal for what that would look like.

But I didn’t come away with any better sense of the odds it happens. Not because it can’t, but because I have been conditioned to believe New York City transportation can’t have nice things.

I’ve included parts of the Q&A below. The full interview will run as a paid edition on Tuesday. Subscribe now if you would like to read it.

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A few quick notes: Rob Newman and Kelly Taylor, Counsel and Deputy Counsel to the Speaker, were also present because they worked on the report. Also, the parts I’ve included have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.

Aaron Gordon: Since your speakership began it was very obvious to me that you were making transportation a key focus. When did that formulate in your mind and how did you settle on that?

Corey Johnson: I don't know when or if there was a moment that I made a conscious decision on that. But you know, I've lived in New York since 2001 when I was 19 years old. I've never owned a car, even growing up when I got my permit and driver's license. I've always been a mass transit user. I've used the subways and buses basically every day I've lived in New York City for almost 20 years.

So for me, as I said in the speech, the subways and the buses is where New York happens. It's where you see daily life in New York City. It's where you see frustrations, is where you see romance, it's where you see homeless people, it's where you see—

AG: Dance parties.

CJ: —Dance parties. It's where you see good parenting and bad parenting. It's where you see it all.

Kelly Taylor: Rats.

CJ: Rats.

What cities were you looking to as models as you were formulating this report?

Well, Rob and Kelly were the ones who, and their team, spent months doing extensive research on what other municipalities in the United States and around the world were doing. They can chime in specifically. But I would say, I think we took a look at what's happened in Berlin and how Berlin has sort of planned their streets. And I mean, they have a sort of a street car monorail system, the U-Bahn I think it's called. They have that and there are cities in Spain, I think Barcelona and Madrid have done some forward thinking street planning.

And then there are other cities. I think Scandinavia has been really forward thinking and about how they use their streets. Amsterdam is a major bike culture as we know. We looked at a bunch of different cities in Europe and we looked at what other cities in the United States had done, what had worked for them and what sort of could be improved on. Am I missing anything?

Kelly: It's mostly Europe. They are light-years ahead of us when it comes to particularly re-thinking car culture, cities in Europe-

CJ: Pedestrian spaces.

Kelly: Planned streets around, pedestrians and cyclists.

You mentioned you were part of the opposition on a protected bike lane project at one point [he did mention this earlier in the conversation, which we talked about and will be in the full Q&A]. Obviously community involvement is always part of these projects to some degree. And as I was reading the report, one of the things I was interested in learning more about is how you manage the community involvement process while at the same time trying to do all this so much faster at a much larger scale than we currently do. Because as the report notes that community process can often be a source of friction. How do you manage those two goals of both wanting the community involved and also doing things on a much larger scale?

The honest answer is I'm not sure because anything you do in New York City in hundreds of distinct neighborhoods where people feel like their little—both neighborhood and then their block—is sort of their little village in their little home. Anything you do when you make changes it's going to stir some level of anxiety and opposition. I think if you use data, if you have other successful examples in the city, if you talk about it in a comprehensive master plan-like way, where it doesn't seem like this is just being imposed only on them, but it's a plan for the entire city, you can sell it in a way that still allows for community input but also says you don't get to entirely fend off this project. We’ll work with you, there might be some hyper local issues and concerns that could improve this project or that we haven't thought about from a local perspective but I think it's sort of an amalgam of those two things.

And there's no, I think, set path or plan on anything you really do in New York City. I mean, look at the ULURP process. You have a designated clock that works in some ways, but you know, there's opposition, there's support. It goes up, it goes down, it gets negotiated. Some things get included, some things don't get included. I think it would be similar to that.

Every once in a while I get an email from a reader who asks about municipal control. They're like, "That seems like a good idea, but what would that look like?" And I'd respond, "Good question." Nobody has really thought about it in a very systemic way until this plan came out, which is why I was excited to see it. It seems very thoughtful. It seems like you guys really put a lot of care into it.

But it kind of reinforced a question that I've had all along. It’s not an issue with your research, or your report. It’s just the situation. In order to do this, it seems like you need a large degree of buy-in from the state. And I don't know why the state would ever agree to give up power over the MTA. It gives them an awful lot of negotiating power over city issues. How do you get the state to that point?

I think that's sort of an impossible question to answer only because I never thought that Eliot Spitzer would only be governor for like 14 months. And I never thought that after Andrew Cuomo lost to Carl McCall in 2002 he'd come back as the attorney general four years later or that Anthony Weiner wouldn't run in 2009 for mayor. Crises happen which then sometimes spur action to actually do certain things. And so, I'm not saying that in a dismissive way. All I'm saying is the building block to get something done, if there's an opportunity, is number one having a plan that makes sense, that is defensible, that you could sell, that experts and policy makers say this is a real thing. You actually can achieve this. It's not a pie-in-the-sky utopian fantasy, but something that could actually get done. That's the first step.

The next step is actually getting public support. Again, I don't say this in a, I'm not saying this is about me. I'm saying it generally. If you look at, and I'm not comparing municipal control to the civil rights movements, but it's a good point to make: if you look at the African American civil rights movement, the LGBT civil rights movement, the women's suffrage movement, these are all movements that were led by people, not politicians. And these were movements that got politicians to move in the right direction where there's enough pressure.

I think Families For Safe Streets have done that. I think they've done that on safety issues around communities and speed cameras and pedestrianization and reckless driving and changing the verbiage from accident to crash. So I think with a well-organized group of people who can make the case on a public policy issue, they're the ones that can typically get elected officials to do the right thing and move in the right direction. And I think that's part of the reason why you saw, not that there was widespread opposition to the mayor's plan, but I don't think there was tremendous enthusiasm from other elected officials for universal pre-K, but I think the public was like, "This sounds good. I'm going to get free childcare for my four year old." And it makes sense and it's good public policy and I think the public's support for universal pre-K is what laid the groundwork to get the money from Albany to get it done.

I think this is the same thing. It's a long-term plan. It's setting the table, it's building public support, which I've seen a tremendous amount of public support just in a little more than a week since we gave the speech and I think that's the first step. Then the long-term strategy, is to go and sell this to the legislature and to the governor to make the case, to have a very, hopefully, intellectually serious argument and discussion about it.

And then, I don't know if I'm going to be the next mayor but hopefully whoever the next mayor is, this will be a roadmap for them on how to get it done. And I think if someone does get this done, they'll go down in the history books as someone who did something extraordinarily significant for the city of New York for the next century.

Thanks to all the paid subscribers who make this free edition possible. To become a paid subscriber and get the rest of the Corey Johnson Q&A and occasional exclusive content, sign up now:

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News You Probably Can't Use, But About Which You Can Certainly Brood

  • Yesterday, the MTA announced they’re extending the on-demand e-hail pilot for 1,200 Access-A-Ride customers through the end of the year. If you need a refresher, the e-hail pilot allowed less than one percent of AAR customers to get rides on-demand through the Curb app, paying the normal AAR fare with the MTA picking up the difference, which saved the MTA money on a per-trip basis over regular AAR. The pilot program was scheduled to expire in April, so this at least continues a service many of its users have hailed as transformational, although it doesn’t exactly assuage concerns about its long-term prospects.
    The MTA also announced they will provide more AAR trips "in taxis and for-hire vehicles (FHV) in coming years" although a lot of details on that initiative, such as for whom it will be available, how many rides will be replaced with FHVs and what the time scale is, are still forthcoming.
    There are two main sources of e-hail customer satisfaction: 1. customers could make trips on-demand, whereas under the traditional AAR service they have to book trips at least 24 hours in advance (as an aside, think about what your life would be like if you had to book all your public transportation trips 24 hours in advance) 2. The trips were direct without the notorious multi-borough tours to pick up other customers.
    The expansion of taxi/FHV-based trips, which have been available since the beginning of the month under the title program Enhanced Broker Service, in theory brings the second benefit to more AAR customers, but not the first. Those trips will still need to be booked at least 24 hours in advance. Joe Rappaport of the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled told AMNY that riders have been complaining about sloppy execution of the Enhanced Broker Service since its launch.
    Advocates like Rappaport have been calling for the MTA to expand the e-hail program in its entirety so more customers can experience both benefits. The MTA has contended it can’t afford to expand the program—even though each e-hail ride is roughly half the cost of a traditional AAR ride—because those customers take so many more trips. Notably, the MTA has never presented a study or analysis on this despite repeated requests from advocates. I suppose the MTA’s position is that its well-publicized budgetary pressures make it a non-starter.

  • First spotted by @uws_cyclist, the B (and M) trains this week had strange service advisories, telling riders service “may end early each evening,” as if NYCT didn’t know! Living off the B myself, I have become accustomed to it seemingly never running past 9 PM anyways, but this is the first time I’ve seen such hedging language.

    I asked NYCT about both the weird wording and the seemingly permanent B service changes. Regarding the wording, spokesman Shams Tarek said they are “actively working to improve the signage we use to explain this type of service change, and will be more descriptive and clear about this on our digital assets as well.”
    As for B service constantly ending early, VP of Service Delivery Barry Greenblatt, widely regarded as one of—if not the—foremost expert on subway operations, said in a statement provided to Signal Problems that this is the result of work starting earlier on weeknights. Due to the location many of the work trains leave from, it often impacts B service. His entire statement is below because I think it’s a great example of how complicated planned work can be:

    The introduction of 10pm start times for overnight work has led to work trains being dispatched from storage yards as early as 8 PM in many cases, which requires train service to close early on a lot of lines. The most impacted portion of the system is the 4th Avenue Corridor where work trains originating from 38th Street Yard [between 9th Ave and 36th St on the D] must traverse the 4th Avenue express track between 36th Street and DeKalb Avenue regardless of their ultimate destination. This diverts Manhattan-bound D and N service to the local track, which if full service were to operate, would require the B, D, N and Q all use the same track at DeKalb Avenue. They won’t fit, so northbound B service — which again is redundant at every station on the line—ends earlier than usual under these conditions — about two hours earlier — to provide the needed track capacity at DeKalb Avenue for all of the 38th Street Yard work trains to go to their various jobs throughout the city. Note that often this work is on the B line itself, for example on the Concourse line last week.

    So how are we making this as least impactful as possible? In a lot of ways. In addition to ending the redundant B service early when needed, we have built additional tracks at Jamaica Yard in Queens and Linden Yard in Brooklyn to relocate work trains for storage, loading, and unloading. We are also staging work trains in other yards to the extent possible and altering work train routing.  All of these extensive efforts have allowed us to do a massive amount of repair, maintenance and improvement work with reduced impact on customers.

    Up until now I suspected ending B service early was a cost-saving service cut. It’s always fun to learn new things!

  • Second Ave Sagas (who is a lawyer by day) has a very informative breakdown of the ADA lawsuit last week. As he points out, this is yet another issue where cost control looms large. Speaking of: Alon Levy provides a rough sketch of the costs of installing elevators in metro stations in different cities around the world, something I haven’t seen done before (spoiler: NYC pays the most and it’s not close).

  • The L train was horribly delayed on Thursday morning due to loose wires on the track. Station metering had to be done at Bedford Ave. Dan Rivoli of NY1 reports this was a result of the overnight repair work, suggesting such delays may be more common once the L tunnel repairs begin. Regardless of this specific incident’s relevance, I think it’s fair to assume that conducting intensive nightly construction work for 15-20 months will result in many AM commute issues.

  • The MTA is making progress on the much-needed Bronx bus network redesign. They released key findings from the various workshops they did with Bronx residents, including majority support for frequency vs. coverage (run more frequent service on fewer routes instead of less service on more routes) and stop consolidation. You can see the full report here. They expect to release a draft plan in May and a final plan in September. The transparency on this project thus far has been better than expected.

  • Funding The MTA news:

    • This week, the MTA funding roulette lands on...**spins, orders another drink, makes small talk**…the pied-a-terre tax!

    • PCAC put together an interactive tool to fund the MTA (which unfortunately doesn’t include any way to reduce the budget)

    • Good governance watchdog Reinvent Albany created a handy table for comparing the MTA proposals from the Governor, Assembly and Senate 

  • Finally, *finally* there is (a little) movement on significantly curtailing car usage in the Financial District, thanks to the Financial District Neighborhood Association. I still maintain the Financial District would become one of the best places in the city and one of the most unique destinations in the world if it was pedestrianized.

  • DOT is currently working through two different proposals for how to rebuild the BQE. But the City Comptroller has proposed his own idea, one that I suspect will become increasingly popular over time: what if we only kinda rebuild it? 

  • PCAC released an exemplary report on commute times, using the Broadway N/W to Bowling Green as a case study. They found in the AM peak adding nearly ten minutes to the scheduled 39 minute trip is required to regularly ensure an on-time arrival. The average actual travel speed along the 4/5 from 59th St to Union Square in the AM is only nine miles per hour. In the PM, nine minutes ought to be added. Riders are not able to board the 4/5 approximately a quarter of the time at Fulton St, although average speeds were 50 percent faster than the AM commute.
    What is also clear is NYCT cannot run the number of trains per hour that are scheduled on the 4/5, often missing the mark by four or five per hour, something the New York Times covered in 2017.
    I also liked the inclusion of proposals to de-interline or reconfigure route combinations to make operations easier, not because I am particularly in favor of any of them specifically, but because taking advantage of the subway’s unparalleled route flexibility is not discussed enough as a way to improve subway performance and serve riders better as we wait a decade or two for CBTC.

  • Hudson Yards opened this week and everyone fucking hates it. Seriously, one of the two subway extensions we actually managed to build over the last decade was to there? Anyways, I bring this up because the escalators at the Hudson Yards 7 station are broken

  • Who needs a Ford F-150 when you’ve got the subway?

  • Long Island helipad NIMBYism? “I see both sides because I'm a pilot ... I don't want to be next to one but so far, the ones that exist don't bother me personally.”

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

  • Motherboard took a deeper look at Via, the ridesharing app that says they pay their workers better and truly prioritize shared rides. Can a rideshare app be ethical? Probably! But is this one?

  • In a surprise to absolutely no one, the Trump administration’s preliminary budget is very good for highways and very bad for public transit. But there will be ample haggling to come.

  • China wants to extend its extremely problematic social credit system to paying for transit fares with your face. Part of me admires the sheer competency that would be required to pull that off.

  • DC Metro is moving ahead with subsidizing for-hire vehicle fees in lieu of providing late night service. Unfortunately, they’re only proposing a $3 subsidy per ride, which will likely be nowhere near the cost of a trip for most travelers. Leave it to DC Metro to come up with a solution that works for no one.

  • There’s no such thing as a perfectly fair transit fare.

  • Atlanta’s transportation is as much a racial story as a transportation story, and an upcoming vote in Gwinnett County will tell us a lot about how things have (or haven’t) changed. I highly recommend Kevin Kruse’s book, White Flight, to learn more about not only Atlanta’s midcentury politics but the making of modern America.

Head over to Subway Weekender for all your unofficial weekend and late night service advisory breakdowns.

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: Nick Andersen

This has been another edition of Signal Problems, a weekly newsletter helping you figure out what is going on with the subway, made every week by Aaron Gordon. Read on the web or view the archives at signalproblems.nyc.

If you’re enjoying this newsletter, please share it with others. It’s the best way you can say thanks.

As always, send any feedback, subway questions, or Dog in a Bag photos to signalproblems@substack.com. I’d love to hear from you. As someone on a stalled Q train once told me, we’re all in this together.  

Getting kicked out of the MTA's robot demo

And initial thoughts on Corey Johnson's transportation platform

Quick note: I will no longer be including upcoming weekend/late night service advisories due to the schedule change to Monday emails. Lance, the very nice person who sent them to me every Thursday evening with a reliability the subway can only dream of, will still be posting at his helpful website the Subway Weekender.

From time to time, Signal Problems receives tips. I recently got one that piqued my interest: the MTA IT department would be hosting an “executive demonstration” to show the installation of ultra-wideband sensors on the 42nd St shuttle track “via a robotic arm,” the service change order stated.

As a refresher, ultra-wideband, or UWB, is a form of wireless communication that may be applicable to communications-based train control, or CBTC, an upgraded signaling system currently used on the L and 7. Governor Cuomo appears to be of the mistaken belief that UWB is different from CBTC. It is not, nor is it in use in any train system of any kind anywhere in the world. But UWB, if proven viable, could make installing CBTC quicker and cheaper.

You’d think the UWB project would be under the auspices of New York City Transit, because it’s, you know, a signaling project for the subway. But it’s not. It’s under MTA IT, which is outside NYCT’s purview.

This didn’t make sense to me until the MTA board started asking questions about Executive Order 168, the one Governor Cuomo signed back in the summer of 2017 to declare the MTA in a “state of emergency” and that he has renewed every month to circumvent normal procurement processes.

One such project forwarded under EO168 is….UWB. Back when the board raised eyebrows about this in July, I wrote:

The kicker to this little side narrative: [former MTA chairman Joe] Lhota said even if [UWB] was proven, which it won’t be until December at the soonest, the full project would go through the normal procurement process. As one board member inquired, how does the MTA figure the proof-of-concept is an emergency measure but the project to actually fix the subways is not?

It is partially for this reason—and also the general secrecy behind it from the MTA—that I’ve always found UWB to be a curious project. I was excited to get a glimpse of it. And robots!

The demo was taking place on the Grand Central shuttle platform in the middle of a weekday, so I asked Dave Colon to go and check it out. Here’s what he saw:

Photo credit: Dave Colon
Photo credit: Dave Colon
Photo credit: Dave Colon

Unfortunately, we didn’t get too many details at the event because Colon was confronted within a few minutes by MTA staff. He was told that the event was closed to the press because it was a demonstration of a technology the MTA was considering. They then instructed him to leave.

A spokesman for the MTA later told us this shouldn’t have happened and apologized for the mistake. The MTA also provided the following statement about the demonstration:

“If the next capital plan is fully funded, the MTA will be able to embark on a massive re-signaling process that will have a dramatic impact on speeding up trains and increasing reliability across our system. As part of that effort we are exploring a number of ways of installing new, cutting edge technology in quicker and cheaper ways in order to bring the system up to modern standards in the most efficient fashion. On a grand scale it will be safer, quicker, cheaper and less disruptive to service. As part of these efforts, we held a demonstration of a robot installation, last Monday.”

As you can see in that last photo, the event was put on by a company called Reliabotics, which is based out of Woodbridge, NJ. The only mention of this company in the entire MTA website, which houses contract information, board materials, past presentations, and all other public documents, is from the October 2017 finance committee report, under the section for EO168 procurement. Under the emergency order, the MTA paid the company $150,000 for “Work train for installation of wayside sensors.”

Here are a few other “emergency” items procured under the executive order that month:

  • $2.08 million to PricewaterhouseCoopers for the “Administration of the MTA Genius Transit Challenge,” a widely-panned Cuomo initiative that fits squarely into the “oh, yeah, I remember that” category of MTA waste

  • $7 million in “Bus Services from Park & Ride locations during Amtrak/Penn Station summer improvements,” an expense board member Veronica Vanterpool flagged at the time as having nothing to do with the emergency order’s purpose

  • $525,000 in consultant fees “to prepare conformed contract drawings and specifications for the Cortlandt Street #1 Line Station which has been closed since 2001.” Ah yes, the “emergency” of re-opening a station that has been closed for 16 years.

To put these costs in perspective, remember when NYCT was planning to massively boost subway service on all those other lines during the L shutdown? It estimated all that extra service would cost the agency $27.2 million annually.

I can’t say whether this UWB-installing robot, or UWB in general, is a good idea (because, you know, we were kicked out of the event). It’s certainly plausible. But what I do know is none of this is an emergency.

What the MTA absolutely doesn’t need is to have Cuomo foisting yet another “innovation” on a broken bureaucracy without any transparency. If it’s a worthy project, it ought to stand up to scrutiny, from the board and the public, on its merits.

Thanks to all the paid subscribers who make this free edition possible. Consider becoming a paid subscriber today to support the newsletter and receive occasional subscriber-only content.

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News You Probably Can't Use, But About Which You Can Certainly Brood

  • More or less since the day I started this beat, I’ve been pounding the drum that the fundamental problem from which all other issues metastasize is that neither the Mayor nor Governor have a comprehensive vision for what getting around New York City ought to look like. So it was with great interest that City Council Speaker Corey Johnson released a 104-page plan for municipal control of the subways and buses and “a comprehensive transportation vision for the five boroughs.” I don’t often encourage people to read 104-page government reports but if you subscribe to this newsletter then it’s almost certainly up your alley.

    I will be writing much, much more about this plan in the coming weeks. But in short: the plan deserves to be taken seriously. As I wrote in the subscriber-only mailbag edition a couple of months ago, the idea of the city getting back control of the subways and buses has always been intriguing but no one had put forth a serious proposal. Here is that serious proposal.

    Some ideas are fantastic, others are debatable, but that’s only to be expected for a governance restructuring of this magnitude. I’m particularly a fan of the idea of a city-wide Mobility Czar that would control all things transportation. I don’t think the city can have a truly world-class transportation landscape with the disparate governance structure it currently has. I mean, how can we expect transportation policy to work when two separate agencies share control over bus stops?

    That being said, I find it frustrating to hear people dismiss the plan as impractical, or using some euphemism for impracticality, without engaging it on its merits. You know what’s impractical? Having (most of; I see you, NJ Transit and PATH) the region’s transportation governed by an authority that plunges us into crisis after crisis, generation after generation, making no actual progress in between.

    If you’re looking for a “I don’t have time to read it just give me the gist of it son” recommendation, I’ll point to Alon Levy’s breakdown and Second Ave Sagas’ take (particularly this bit: “The mayor’s statement and those from the leading advocacy groups seem to indicate that too many are putting all their MTA eggs in the congestion pricing basket. They seem to view congestion pricing as an “immediate fix” to the MTA’s woes, and this is misguided at best and dangerous at worse [sic]”).

    An observation: this report has 782 footnotes. The Cuomo/BdB Ten Point MTA reform plan has 932 words, total.

  • A federal judge finally told the MTA this week they cannot keep completely disregarding the Americans with Disabilities Act. I wrote all about the decision and put it into its larger New-York-is-pretty-damn-terrible-for-people-with-disabilities context over at the noted New York City transportation blog Jalopnik. The money quote from U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman:
    “The MTA is now on notice that whenever it renovates a subway station throughout its system so as to affect the station’s usability, the MTA is obligated to install an elevator, regardless of the cost, unless it is technically infeasible.  Individuals with disabilities have the same rights to use the New York City subway system as every other person. The Court’s decision marks the end of the MTA treating people with disabilities as second-class citizens.”

  • More faster trains!

  • The severely disappointing Fair Fares rollout will get slightly less disappointing this fall when the program expands to “eligible New Yorkers in NYCHA, enrolled students at CUNY and military veterans below 100 percent of poverty line.” The pay-per-ride option will also be available in mid-March. The city also plans to launch open enrollment in January 2020 for all eligible New Yorkers below the Federal Poverty line, which is better than never but a year later than everyone expected.

  • I really think the MTA made a mistake by not pursuing a cat-based fare payment system (although hopefully OMNY works better than whatever payment system this is)

  • From the Department of Hell Yeah:

  • One of my New York nightmares, along with falling down a basement door or having an air conditioner crush me above, is finding out I walked past a homeless person who I thought was sleeping but was actually dead, because the idea of walking past a dead person without the slightest bit of compassion is the functional definition of a morally bankrupt society. In totally, completely unrelated news, a homeless man sitting on a bench at the Herald Square subway platform at 9 AM on a weekday was pronounced dead.

  • MTA board member Carl Weisbrod is resigning effective April 4, another loss for a board that is under tremendous pressure on multiple fronts to solve problems they don’t have any power to address. The board has lost several key voices lately in Scott Rechler, Jamie Vitiello, Ira Greenberg, and now Weisbrod. Mayor De Blasio will get to nominate a replacement.

  • Back when the L was shutting down, NYCT president Andy Byford and DOT commissioner Polly Trottenberg were personally showing up to town halls to answer questions from (and get shouted at by) locals. Well, during the new “L Project” town halls, no MTA official or voting board member showed up (board members probably didn’t show up because the MTA has demonstrated they don’t get a say in what happens with the L tunnel). It is as this point I must remind you that Andy Byford was removed from the L tunnel project within days of him vowing to do a full, independent review of the new plan.

  • From the MTA’s L Project newsletter:
    “We're way ahead of schedule on the major mezzanine expansion we've been building at Bedford Av Station. We'll be ready to open it on Monday, March 25.”

    That’s good!

    “But before it's finished, we have to build two new stairs to connect the mezzanine to the platform. We're going to do these one at a time, but it's still going to make the platform extra crowded.”

    That’s bad.

    “Starting this coming Monday, March 11, our team and NYPD will be out helping you navigate safely.”

    That’s good!

    ”FYI, if you're traveling in the busy morning or evening times and get off the train at this station, you'll be directed to exit on the Driggs Avenue side.”


  • The MTA is going to try installing vending machines at some in-station locations to replace newsstands, which seems reasonable enough. Dear MTA: please put Takis in the vending machines.

  • Ginia Bellafante did not hold back on De Blasio’s subway obliviousness: “‘What I gleaned is people really depend on their subways,’ Mr. de Blasio said at a news conference later, sounding as if he were a tourist from Havana with limited access to the tens of thousands of words that have been devoted to this subject by the local press during the past few years.”

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

No ROW links this week because it was one of those weeks where I did not have my shit together. Sorry! They’ll be back next week, I promise.

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: Elizabeth Greenwood

This has been another edition of Signal Problems, a weekly newsletter helping you figure out what is going on with the subway, made every week by Aaron Gordon, senior reporter at Jalopnik. Read on the web or view the archives at signalproblems.nyc.

If you’re enjoying this newsletter, please share it with others. It’s the best way you can say thanks.

As always, send any feedback, subway questions, or Dog in a Bag photos to signalproblems@substack.com. I’d love to hear from you. As someone on a stalled Q train once told me, we’re all in this together.  

Schedule Change

No, I'm not padding the schedules to improve on-time performance

Hi Signal Problems readers,

You’re probably wondering what the hell happened with the subway this week or what I think about Corey Johnson’s subway and bus municipal takeover plan. You will find out! But not today.

As some of you may have heard, I got a job. I am now a senior reporter for Jalopnik, covering the intersection of transportation, technology, and the future of how we get around. This won’t change a lot around here. The one thing it will change for free subscribers is the newsletter will start landing in your inbox on Mondays going forward.

But I didn’t want to ghost on you today. So, in exchange for this delay, please accept extra dogs in bags.

See you Monday,


Photo credit: Zoe Beery
Photo credit: Amy Plitt
Photo credit: Skylar Ivancie
Photo credit: Tabitha Decker

Photo credit: Colin Wright
Photo credit: Anna Leuchtenberger

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