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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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
The state budget passed last week with very few causes for optimism on the NYC transit front. The most noteworthy inclusion is a $2.75 surcharge on all e-hail rides, $2.50 for all cab rides, and 75 cents for shared rides (UberPool, Lyft Line, Via, etc.) for all trips that either begin or end below 96th Street. The revenue—expected to be $415 million annually—will be dedicated to MTA projects such as the Subway Action Plan. In exchange for this MTA “lock box,” as Al Go..I mean Bill de Blasio has been demanding, the Mayor agreed to fund the city’s half of the Subway Action Plan.
What does this all mean? For one, it almost certainly means congestion pricing is not happening any time soon. The budget doesn’t include any provisions for installing E-Z Pass readers at the necessary points for such a cordon toll to be instituted. This is a huge missed opportunity for the city; billions of dollars in revenue, significant traffic reduction, and not to mention cleaner air and other benefits are out the window once again.
Furthermore, it’s not clear how this surcharge will make your life any better. Few people believe this small surcharge will reduce congestion in any meaningful way. Nor will the money go to good use. Eight months in, the Subway Action Plan has so far failed to make commutes significantly better—as the numerous meltdowns this week illustrate—because it is targeting the wrong things. I don’t see any reason to believe a “fully-funded” Action Plan will change that.
(As a quick aside: the rhetoric around the funding for the Action Plan was very weird. The MTA routinely spends money on projects it doesn’t actually have the money for; so routinely, in fact, that debt service is one of its biggest line items. I never really got a good explanation for why this project was so important the state of the subway depended it on it but not so important they couldn’t borrow if absolutely necessary to fully fund it while these questions got sorted.)
But more to the point, $400 million a year is neither necessary nor sufficient for fixing the subway. It’s not necessary because the MTA has plenty of money; $15.3 billion a year in revenue, to be exact, $11.5 billion of which comes from “dedicated funding,” or revenue from fares and earmarked taxes (I’m even being conservative and not including tolls in that figure). For comparison, Transport for London’s 2017/18 income is forecasted to be $9.2 billion. In other words, this surcharge represents a 2.6% increase in the agency’s income. If 2.6% in funding has been the difference between a good and bad subway this whole time, then that says more about the current management than it does about dollars and cents.
Nor is the surcharge sufficient to solve the subway’s problems because it will cost far more than $400 million a year to fix the subway. Just last week Andy Byford told the WSJ he’s targeting 10-15 years and $8-15 billion to install a modern signaling system across the entire system, which is one of the keys to actually fixing the subway (along with fixing those pesky timers and other operational inefficiencies). $400 million a year won’t pay for most of that and in the meantime would leave the constant maintenance of the existing signaling system unfunded once again.
The MTA has a spending problem, not a revenue problem. They waste billions upon billions of dollars on poorly-managed mega-projects—an issue, by the way, Cuomo has not publicly acknowledged—and have dug themselves deep in debt while neglecting basic maintenance. For whatever positives it may accomplish, this added revenue will not fix these fundamental problems. It’ll give the MTA a little bit more money to throw down the rathole.
Either way, Cuomo finally has the money he demanded. De Blasio wasted little time pointing this out, telling NY1 “It's abundantly clear he [Cuomo] is 100 percent responsible for the MTA. He's got everything he wanted. He kept saying he wanted this money for the subway action plan; he’s got it now. Time to put up.”
Cuomo has tied his Subway Savior Plan to this money. If it doesn’t work, if it’s just more millions the MTA wastes, then Nixon, de Blasio, and any other Cuomo hater out there will have another bullet in the chamber during the upcoming campaign.
The Mayor concluded with what should have been his maxim for months: “No more excuses."
Also This Week In #CuomosMTA
So here’s a freaking whopper of a bombshell: remember that whole Enhanced Station Initiative kerfuffle? Quick refresher: the MTA Board expressed serious reservations about the project to renovate 33 stations for almost $1 billion because it did not bring the stations up to ADA compliance nor was it a particularly good use of $1 billion at this point in time. But at the following board meeting, with Byford’s urging, they passed the project on the grounds that it was more than just “cosmetic” upgrades.
(Another aside: Please do notice how the MTA was demanding the city chip in $400+ million for an emergency subway triage plan that it deemed critical to saving the subway at the same time it was also trying to move full-steam ahead on a $1 billion dubious station enhancement project.)
Turns out, the project blew through its budget after just 19 stations and at least one of the guys participating in that board debate, MTA Chairman Joe Lhota, knew this the whole time but didn’t say anything. Why, you might ask? From the WSJ report:
Mr. Lhota said he was aware of the increased costs last year, but he chose not to mention it until now. “I didn’t think it was relevant to the debate,” he said.
The Chairman of the MTA didn’t think it was relevant to a debate about expanding a $1 billion project to talk about how that $1 billion project was already horrifically over-budget. If that’s not relevant to the debate, what is?
I am tempted to agree with transit expert Alon Levy that this is an egregious breach of Lhota’s duties:
An alternative way to phrase Lhota’s own words is that he is concealing critical information from the public relevant to public spending priorities. In other words, he is defrauding the public when it comes to costs.
Levy gets at why this is even more important than the MTA chairman lying by omission to the board and therefore the public:
If a hack like Lhota stays in charge of the MTA, there is not going to be transparency about contracting and about costs, which means that small overruns can blow out of proportion before anyone notices. In such an environment, high costs are not surprising.
News You Probably Can't Use, But About Which You Can Certainly Brood
Speaking of cost overruns, East Side Access has another one. It’s not clear yet how much this will delay the project or how much extra it will end up costing us, but this project is basically an inter-generational wealth transfer program at this stage.
Byford says he’s going to reveal his Big Signal Modernization Plan™ by the end of May. At the same time, Cuomo and Lhota gave a presentation to a NY State business group touting ultra-wideband radio as the solution to the subway’s signal woes, a technology Byford himself has expressed caution about. It would be nice of the MTA and Transit could get on the same page about what kind of signal modernization they want. Anyways, the slide concluded with “Right man for the job — Andy Byford.”
The BQX, that city-proposed $2.5 billion streetcar from Astoria to Sunset Park, may finally be dead. “Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen said…’Assuming that it does not pay for itself... then we have to decide whether or not this is the right use of capital money for a transportation project.’” She then floated the possibility of asking the federal government to pay for it, which, yeah, good luck with that.
The Times got a behind-the-scenes look at how subway cars are cleaned.
A psychologist says chatting with strangers will lead to a more pleasant commute. In related news, I no longer believe psychology to be a valid discipline.
A neat look inside the Crown Heights shop that makes all the subway’s signs: “As inconvenient and frustrating as route changes can be for commuters, they mean a massive amount of extra work for the crew of a dozen people working at the signage shop. At the Times Square station alone, there are 1,640 signs. In 2010, when W train service was terminated, 3,000 signs had to be replaced. Employees were asked to forgo vacation time during the bustling two months it took to produce the new signs. Quite similarly, when the Q train started making local stops overnight in 2014, the crew hustled again to create 200 new signs that were installed at 31 stations.”
Better Know A Subway Stat: On-Time Performance (OTP)
Percent of trains that arrive at their final stop (terminal station) within five minutes of their scheduled arrival time.
Most recent OTP (Jan ‘18):
Weekday: 58.1% (down 6% year-over-year)
Weekend: 64.7% (down 9.5% year-over-year)
Providing a broad overview of how the subway is performing; comparing performance across time since it is the MTA’s oldest performance metric. Think of it kind of like the subway’s “check engine” light. If systemwide OTP is above 90% (yes, NYCT’s goal used to be at least 90%) that would be a good indicator the subway is performing well, and if it’s below 90% that’s similarly useful in indicating something isn’t right.
Nobody cares whether the train is on-time to its last stop since few people ride trains to the terminus.
There is obviously some truth to this, but it also misses the bigger picture. If a train is late arriving to its last stop, the odds are good the delay occurred somewhere else along the line, not right before it got to the terminal. It’s like taking a long car journey: if you’re driving for several hours, you might hit traffic in your destination’s neighborhood, but far more often you’ll hit a jam on the highway somewhere along the way.
The second criticism is that nobody cares if a train is five minutes late to its final stop as long as the trains are running fairly smoothly and are evenly spaced along the line.
Again, there is some truth here, but it misses the larger picture. Five-minute delays rarely occur in isolation, especially during rush hours. If one train is running even a few minutes late, it will have cascading effects across not just its own line, but other lines too. Think of all the interlockings, junctions, and complex signals trains encounter on their journeys. Some lines have more than others, and those tend to be the lines with the most issues (looking at you, F). If a train is even a few minutes late, it clogs up the works. It might be given the all-clear to pass through a junction without further delay, but because it was late, it’s then holding up another train at that junction. That train being five minutes late to the terminal is a good indicator there were probably other late trains, too.
As for managing headways, for the sake of brevity I’ll just say that is an exceedingly difficult task in our massive, complex subway system, especially when radios don’t even work in the tunnels half the time. Also, managing headways is largely an exercise in slowing trains down, and making trains go slower is not a solution to making trains go faster. The whole “well, headways should just be better” counterargument is akin to the “every car should just go” recommendation for highway traffic. It misses the reason headways are bad in the first place.
Providing any detail about the subway’s performance; diagnosing why performance is declining; indicating if specific initiatives are having an impact on subway performance.
Can Be Reviewed In…
OTP is officially known as a “legacy indicator.” As far as I can tell, this is NYCT acknowledging the stat is antiquated—indeed, it is a very simple, non-technical metric—while also having the added benefit of burying its abysmal numbers deep in the board books and Dashboard. But changing the name of the stat from one of their two “key indicators” to a “legacy indicator” doesn’t change the numbers or what they’re telling us. OTP is still just as useful—and limited—as it ever was.
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
2 - No service between E 180 Street and Dyre Av
4 - multiple diversions
All service is local-only in Manhattan
No service between Utica Av and New Lots Av
6 - Manhattan-bound service is express-only between Parkchester and 3 Av-138 St
7 - No service between Queensboro Plaza and 34 St-Hudson Yards
A - All service is local-only between 59 St-Columbus Circle and Canal St
A C - Queens-bound service is express-only in Brooklyn
C - No service between 145 Street and 168 Street
J - No service between Crescent St and Jamaica Center
N Q R - Manhattan Bridge / Montague Tunnel switcheroo (Sat. only)
N R - Brooklyn-bound service runs via Manhattan Bridge
Q - Brooklyn-bound service runs via R line between Canal St and DeKalb Av
R - No overnight service between Atlantic Av and Whitehall St (Sat. only)
2 - No service between 149 St-Grand Concourse and 96 Street
3 - No service
4 6 - Downtown service is express-only between 125 Street and Grand Central
F - All service is local-only in Queens
N - multiple diversions
No service between Queensboro Plaza and Times Sq-42 Street
Manhattan-bound service runs via Q line between DeKalb Av and Canal 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
Subway Detective Agency
Have a weird question about the subway you’ve always wanted to know? Send it to email@example.com.
Jorge asks: When did the term 'straphanger' originate? I find it to be a fascinating term and wonder the history of it.
For those who may not know, the term “straphanger” refers to the fact that streetcars/subways used to have straps hanging down for standing passengers to hold onto. Merriam-Webster claims the term was first used in 1896 but I found an even earlier usage. On August 30, 1892, a Gloversville, NY newspaper (so named because the town was a big glove manufacturing hub) published a curious little anecdote that uses “straphanger” in the context its used today.
The story, titled “Like Sheep,” appears on the same page as raw news stories but is written more like a parable.
“I suppose that we see more people than any other class of men,” remarked the guard on an elevated train to a New York Tribune reporter. “It’s a crowd all day long, and every day in the year.”
Elevated lines, or Els, had been operating in Manhattan since the 1870s and Brooklyn since the late 1880s, so it’s not particularly odd that a local newspaper from a small town near Albany would refer to them so casually.
“Well, what sort of an opinion of humanity do you form?” asked the reporter.
“Sheep,” replied the guard; “that’s the long and short of it. We catch all kinds—rich and poor, old and young, big and little, fat and and thin—and they’re all a flock of sheep, after all, with here and there a goat. See that man in the next car, hanging to the strap?”:
“Goat. And the two women and a boy?”
“Sheep. See the seats at the other end of the car? Now watch.”
The guard’s point here is that people are standing at one end of the car when there are seats available at the other end.
The guard stepped inside the door and said: “Seats at the other end of the car, ladies and gentlemen!” The strap-hangers looked surprised.
There it is. The first known use of the term “straphangers.” (I did find it used in 1891 but it was in reference to the actual hanger holding the strap on trains, not the people.) Note that this is the writer’s usage of the phrase, not the guard speaking.
I’m no linguist or etymologist, but this feels like an organic genesis of “straphangers.” The writer isn’t pulling it out of thin air. He/she quotes the guard a few lines prior as describing a specific man as “hanging to the strap,” which suggests the writer is building off that description to then call all standing passengers “straphangers.”
I think it’s also interesting that the usage seems fairly derogatory to me. After all, the “strap-hangers” are the people too stupid to realize there are seats on the other end of the car!
One woman and the boy went forward to occupy the vacant seats; the other woman said she preferred to stand and the man came out on the platform.
“Curious, isn’t it?” said the guard, philosophically. “Each one of those people stood because the others did and every time we have a full train that sort of thing happens. A crowd collects in one car or maybe at one end of a car. The first one stands because there isn’t a seat and the others come in and stand because he does. That’s why I call humanity ‘sheep.’ They all flock one after another. Then, if the car is really full, two or three men will stand around the door and every blessed soul that gets on will stick there, too, though perhaps the center of the car is clear and you keep asking them to move up.”
Of course, “straphangers” is still used today and is the namesake of one of the most effective advocacy groups in the city’s transit history. But the straps themselves are gone. On November 4, 2003, the Times ran a delightful little article headlined “Let Go, Straphangers. The Ride Is Over.” The lede, about a normal guy caught in the midst of some serious railfanning, is so good:
For Edward Murphy, 21, all the hubbub on the No. 7 train to Queens yesterday morning was hard to fathom. Clad in a jacket and tie, he stepped into a subway car at Grand Central Terminal, expecting an uneventful ride to Woodside, where he had a job interview.
But Mr. Murphy had unwittingly walked into a historic moment -- for some at least -- the final run of a ''Redbird'' train, with those 1960's-vintage subway cars, painted Tuscan red, that are beloved by subway buffs everywhere.
Over the last few years, New York City Transit officials have phased out these trains, the last ones that had actual straps for subway riders to cling to, in favor of computerized, stainless-steel replacements.
So Mr. Murphy found himself surrounded by a motley crew of buffs, New York City Transit workers and officials and reporters, enjoying the train's final run through Queens.
''It doesn't make any sense to me whatsoever,'' Mr. Murphy said, as a train conductor crowed over the public address system that the riders were experiencing the final run for ''this type of train.''
''But whatever,'' Mr. Murphy added, watching as buffs eagerly made their way forward. ''If that's what they enjoy, that's what they enjoy.''
Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World
In Seattle, you can now ride public transportation for free to/from Mariners games by showing your game ticket.
Santiago, Chile turned an entire street into a work of art. It looks cool as hell.
Nashville is putting itself on the map as a truly progressive transit city. The mayor recently proposed a $5.2 billion transit plan that will include free fares for residents at or below the federal poverty line.
MTA Mention of the Week
Riding the NYC subway like: “Ladies and gentleman this train is going out of service... it’s covered in feces. We apologize for the inconvenience.”April 2, 2018
Riding the NYC subway like: “Ladies and gentleman this train is going out of service... it’s covered in feces. We apologize for the inconvenience.”April 2, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
When your train is covered in feces. Photo credit: anonymous
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