April 13, 2018: The Life and Death of the Court Square Walkways

Before we get to this week’s newsletter, I was hoping you could do me a quick favor and fill out a very short survey. It would be a huge help in figuring out how to improve Signal Problems. It will take three minutes max, the perfect activity while you’re waiting on the platform. Thank you!

Welcome to Signal Problems, a weekly newsletter helping you figure out what is going on with the subway. I’m Aaron Gordon, transit reporter for the Village Voice. If you’re a new or prospective subscriber, head over to the Subway Knowledge Base page for an introduction to the state of the subway.

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

This Week In #CuomosMTA

As a means of helping commuters transfer between stations, the Court Square moving walkways have been a short-lived failure. But they function perfectly well as a metaphor for the modern MTA.

The moving walkways will be uninstalled this summer in preparation for the L train shutdown, which I wrote about this week. According to MTA planning officials, after 17 years the walkways have reached “the end of their useful life.” They’re the only moving walkways in the entire subway system, even though several connections have much longer walks. They were only installed in the first place to placate a group opposed to a service change.

In 2001, the MTA was looking into ways to increase service frequency between Queens and Manhattan to reduce crowding on the E, F, and R lines. At the time, the G ran from Smith-9th St in Brooklyn up to Forest Hill-71st Ave in Queens (same terminal as the E, F, and R). The problem with adding Manhattan-Queens service was the Queens Boulevard Line didn’t have any more train capacity during rush hours, so planners came up with the solution of shortening trains and terminating G service at Court Square.

Folks who lived along the G didn’t like this one bit, particularly those in Greenpoint. “You have to understand that this is not a parochial issue,'' Assemblyman Joseph R. Lentol, a Brooklyn Democrat who represents Greenpoint, told the New York Times. They appealed to then-governor George Pataki (because everyone knows the governor controls the MTA) who came up with a compromise. They would retain full G service on nights and weekends and install a moving walkway to ease the transfer from the G to the E/F at Court Square. (Before you get confused: yes, that stop now serves the E and M, not the F. There have been several changes to where exactly this Queens Boulevard-Manhattan connection has gone over the years.)

There are, technically speaking, two moving walkways in the hallway between the two lines, one on each side of the fare control area. The hallway itself is 433 feet long and the walkways cover 274 of those feet. The walkways are not parallel so as to facilitate movement in both directions like you often see in airports, but continuous so one end leads into the other. As such, they only move in one direction, from the G to the E/M. According to the Daily News, they cost $3.5 million.

Get a good look at these bad boys while you still can. Photo by Aaron Gordon

In March 2017, an NYCT planner wrote a memo titled “Recommendation for Removing Court Square Moving Walkways” which is exactly what it sounds like. One section is titled “Limited Passenger Benefit” which goes on to detail all the ways in which the walkways have provided…limited passenger benefit:

  • During peak periods, the moving walkways serve only 25% of all passageway-goers because they can only go in one direction and have limited capacity.

  • “Virtually all passengers using the moving walkways actually still walk.”

  • Because the walkways only cover 63% of the actual hallway distance, even those who walk on the walkways save an average of…nine seconds.

  • The planners ran the numbers and found that during the typical weekday, the walkways reduce total passenger-minutes of transfer time by a mere 13%.

Meanwhile, the walkways screw up the passenger flow patterns because of their one-directional manner and by taking up space. Overall, the planners recommended removing the walkways solely because they’re borderline useless before they even got into the fact that they might be a real safety hazard during the L train shutdown.

All along, the MTA has sunk hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of dollars into maintaining these walkways. People who regularly transfer at Court Square unanimously attest to the walkways’ sporadic functionality. Ironically, during periods of non-functionality, the MTA would often block the entrances to the walkways so they couldn’t even be used as a normal place to walk. They would, quite literally, be taking up space.

The planning document I reviewed said that “NYCT policy is to focus on escalators and elevators that assist passengers with vertical moves rather than horizontal,” which sure sounds like NYCT stopped giving a crap about these things years ago but didn’t have any real reason to spend the time and money uninstalling them. The L shutdown gives them that reason.

Which is why these walkways, quasi-functional as they are, serve as the perfect metaphor for the MTA as a whole. They were a political compromise, not a practical solution. They cost too much money and break often. They only get fixed when people raise a prolonged stink about them being broken. And it is only in the face of actual catastrophe that something is being done.

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

  • The NYC subway map has been named the most complicated by a group of theoretical physicists.

  • The BBC did a rather pedestrian profile of Andy Byford, but here’s an amazing tidbit:

    Along with the scale and scope of NYC transport, he faces an archaic bureaucratic culture which he intends to reform. One of the organisation's oldest quirks is that everybody - from the janitor to senior management  - is expected to clock in. After coming and going freely for a few weeks, he realised that his secretary was discreetly keeping track of his hours. "It's ridiculous, I'm the president of the company," he says. "I said, 'Don't bother doing that, I've more than worked my hours'."

  • In the Department of Extremely Not My Thing: Some lady takes pictures of people’s hands on the subway and posts them to Instagram.

  • It’s probably not a great sign when pretty much every single headline about your resignation includes the word “embattled.” Anyways, the LIRR president resigned and is being replaced by the MTA COO, Phil Eng, which is another opportunity to remind folks the odds the best person for a leadership position already holds a leadership position in that organization is close to zero.

  • Where the next train actually is when the conductor says another is directly behind

Better Know A Subway Stat: Wait Assessment (WA)


Percentage of trains that meet a standard of less than 25 percent above the scheduled headway.

Good For…

I’m honestly not sure. It’s a complicated stat that only serves to obfuscate what service actually looks like. I mean, how many times did you have the read the definition before you actually understood it?

Critics say…

This Daily News report from last year pretty much gets to the heart of it, which if you have never read, I highly encourage you to do so right now.

As I have written before, a lot of the subway’s current issues stems from upper management ignoring the deteriorating state of subway performance. Part of those efforts involved inventing a new metric (WA) so they could ignore the ones telling them how bad things are (such as On-Time Performance [OTP]). Management decided to focus on improving WA and ignore declining On-Time Performance (OTP) because they didn’t think OTP mattered. People don’t care when trains get to their final stops, they argued, but only how long between trains. But their solution to improving headways was to slow trains down even more, which obviously doesn’t improve service.

They realized they could improve headways by, as the Daily News reported, “asking subway crews to close up gaps between trains by slowing them down to a crawl, or speeding them up, or holding them in stations, or skipping stops altogether.”

Yes, headways are important and train bunching is bad. But the way to improve headways is to make trains run faster and more reliably across the board, not to slow them down in an attempt to space them better. Or, as a source told the Daily News, this type of train management has led to the caveman-style dispatcher maxim: “me see gap, me hold train.”

Bad At…

I think the official description on the subway dashboard pretty much sums it up:

This…does not account for extra service operated, is not weighted to how many customers are waiting for the trains at different stations, does not distinguish between relatively minor gaps in service and major delays, and is not a true measurement of time customers spend waiting on the platform.

Can Be Reviewed In…

The monthly board books and the subway’s performance dashboard (under legacy indicators). But I wouldn’t advise it.


A legacy indicator that nobody ever mentions.

In Which I Make An Educated Guess About When Things Will Get Better

This week's estimate: 2030

Your Upcoming Service Advisories, Provided by Lance from Subway Weekender

Note: the service advisories reflect the most disruptive changes. Be sure to check the below maps or the MTA website for a full list of service changes.


  • 2 - No service between E 180 Street and Dyre Av

  • 4 - No service between Utica Av and New Lots Av

  • 4 6 - Downtown service is express-only between 125 Street and Grand Central

  • C - No service between 145 Street and 168 Street

  • D - All service runs via A and F lines between 59 St-Columbus Circle and Coney Island

  • E F - All service is local-only in Queens

  • F - All service runs via Q and D lines between Lexington Av-63 St and Coney Island

  • G - No service between Nassau Av and Court Sq

  • N - All service runs via R line between Canal St and Atlantic Av

  • S (Rockaway Park) - No service between Beach 90 St and Broad Channel

 Full-resolution map here

Late Nights:

  • 4 - No service between Utica Av and New Lots Av

  • D - multiple diversions

    • No service between Bedford Park Blvd and 205 Street

    • All service runs via F line between W 4 Street and Coney Island

  • F - All service runs via D line between W 4 Street and Coney Island

  • G - No service between Bedford-Nostrand Avs and Court Sq

  • N - No service between Queensboro Plaza and Times Sq-42 St

  • R - multiple diversions

    • No service between Atlantic Av and Whitehall St

    • All service is express-only between Atlantic Av and 36 St/4 Av

Full-resolution map here

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

MTA Mention of the Week

As the kids say, thread:

Mo'rqueNique Worldwide@ithinkmark

A fight just broke out on the damn A train.

Alright Thursday, calm down.

April 12, 2018
Mo'rqueNique Worldwide@ithinkmark

Jesus. Two guys started fighting because one wanted the other to move but was sleeping. They started fighting and one man got bloodied so bad but refused to stop fighting, so the other guy maced him and pulled out a knife.

April 12, 2018
Mo'rqueNique Worldwide@ithinkmark

They blocked High street. They were beating the shit out of each other.

April 12, 2018
Mo'rqueNique Worldwide@ithinkmark

I'm not sure why the one guy had to mace the whole damn car though.

April 12, 2018

Dog in a Bag

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 aaron.wittes.gordon@gmail.com.

Photo credit: Adam Grosswirth

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