Before we get to this week’s edition, two items:
With all the big news recently—congestion pricing, MTA reform, a new chairman, board turnover, etc.—it seems like a good time to do another mailbag. Have any questions about…anything? Send ‘em in by replying to this email or hitting up firstname.lastname@example.org.
The David Roth Esteemed Rider of the Week Award will now be the David Roth Award for the Esteemed Rider of the Week. In other words, I’m opening up submissions to all Signal Problems readers. If you would like to nominate an esteemed rider of the week, this week or any other week, send it in.
Last week, I wrote about some of the MTA reform measures included in the latest budget that echo previous efforts. But one “reform” I didn’t mention was lifted from an entirely different source. It is also one of the most overlooked, even though it poses a huge problem for NYCT. And not the good kind of problem.
On page 264 of 266 of New York State Senate Bill S1509C, the one that makes all the legislative changes necessary for the latest state budget which includes congestion pricing and various MTA reforms, the legislature took an usual step. They put in the bill, and soon thereafter voted for, the performance statistics the MTA must regularly report. Some of them, such as on-time performance, additional platform time, and elevator availability, are not new.
Aside from the fact that this is highly unusual—which metrics to use is typically left up to whoever runs the trains or the board that oversees it—they appear to have lifted the new ones almost verbatim from the London Underground.
The dead giveaway is item (g), or the Journey Time Metric:
(g) "journey time metric" means the times of each component of a trip including access, egress, interchange, time in queue for tickets, time on platform and time on train. Journey time and its components may be based on a manual or an automatically generated sample.
I mean, “time in queue for tickets?” They didn’t even edit out the Britishisms. They also mixed up cost per km and cost per mile metrics:
Anyways, the Journey Time Metric for the London Underground also has a category named “Access Egress and Interchange Time,” or AEI. Again, the same exact verbiage as in the NY law.
However, one thing did not get copied over, and it happens to be the most important part. London defines a train as being late if it is 15 minutes or more delayed to the terminal. Currently, NYCT defines it as five minutes or more. The new law changes that to two minutes.
Over the course of a subway run, two minutes is nothing. That’s three extra seconds at every station on the C line, five extra seconds at every station on the 4, etc. You get the idea. These are not time scales within NYCT’s control. They’re rounding errors.
Similarly, the Major Incidents bar has been lowered. Currently, it’s any incident that delays 50 or more trains. Under the new law, it’s now 20 trains.
I’ve never been a big fan of Major Incidents. Due to the fact that most lines intersect and diverge throughout the system (“interlining” is the technical term) incidents have cascading effects across many different lines. Diverting trains from one line to another causes congestion elsewhere, which leads to additional delays. Someone somewhere is left with the task of determining if, for example, a 2 train was egiht minutes late due to congestion in Brooklyn because of a 4 train with a door problem or because there were two particularly long dwell times due to customers holding doors.
These blurred lines will get even blurrier when the bar is lowered from 50 trains five minutes late to 20 trains two minutes late. One small incident could easily be elevated to the distinction of a “Major Incident” even if it does not significantly impact service.
Taken together, this will have the obvious impact of making it seem like service is getting much, much worse when in fact no change has taken place.
This is not lost on NYCT, or the MTA as a whole. My sources estimate that, should OTP be moved to the new two-minute bar, OTP would probably plunge from the current 76.5 percent to somewhere between 10 to 20 percent, a ridiculously low number to the point of meaninglessness. In one fell swoop, it would wipe out the very real gains the subway has made over the past year, crushing whatever modicum of morale may remain at the authority. After all, why bother making things better if no one will notice or care? Why dedicate time and energy to chasing an impossible goal?
The other concerning part of these new reporting requirements concerns the actual collection of data required to report the journey time metric. London does extensive surveying, a process they have surely refined over years if not decades, to come up with a reasonably accurate metric of such things as the time people wait in lin…oh, excuse me, queue…to buy tickets, walk through stations, etc. That is a labor-intensive process.
Plus, the metrics now have to be reported on a weekly basis, which is an absurd burden to place on any railroad, as the data takes time to compile and clean up (London reports every four weeks). Further, it’s difficult to understand what the possible improvement could be of weekly versus the current monthly schedule.
Moreover, how, exactly, is NYCT, or the railroads for that matter, supposed to do all this highly labor-intensive performance reporting during a hiring freeze?
By the law—which has been passed by both chambers but according to the Senate website not yet signed by the Governor—the MTA agencies have 180 days after the bill is signed to start reporting this stuff. In other words, they have 180 days to convince whoever decided all this that it’s stupid as hell.
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News You Probably Can't Use, But About Which You Can Certainly Brood
Notwithstanding all of the above, MTA reform isn’t off to the best start. The Post and Gotham Gazette both had good pieces pointing out some of the shortcomings of the reform package. In addition, promises of increased transparency were undermined by the middle-of-the-night confirmation for the new MTA chairman, Pat Foye. Plus, board nominations/approvals are being done with almost no public discussion.
Riders are saying the rollout of the MTA’s improved Access-A-Ride service has been less than smooth. “Some users have been unable to book next-day rides through the feature in recent weeks, having been told there were no more taxis and FHVs available to transport them. Under the enhanced broker service, drivers are required to undergo specialized training as well as drug and alcohol testing—and at times, there haven’t been enough on the road who meet those requirements to meet the demand for rides, users and accessibility advocates say.”
Sounds like the MTA is getting closer to figuring out how to spend that $50 million outer borough transit fund from the taxi/FHV surcharge:
Does the new congestion pricing legislation give Bridges & Tunnels (and by extension the MTA and the governor) too much control over NYC streets? Nicole Gelinas thinks so.
It appears momentum is building for an alternative BQE plan. I’ll be curious to see how this develops. My Hot Take that I am not at all committed to is tearing down the BQE would be a bigger and more positive change for New York City—in terms of eroding at car dependence, increasing public transit usage, and achieving environmental goals—than the current congestion pricing legislation. In general, I believe those goals are better suited by changing the build environment to prioritize cycling and transit than through blunt market forces.
The City—the new non-profit newsroom, not, like, the government—asks: why is the subway still in a state of emergency? Although this would be a good question for the NYC government to ask too.
Also from The City: people whose buildings have been marked for eminent domain seizure to make way for Second Avenue Subway Phase II are stuck in limbo because the MTA doesn’t have the federal money they thought they would to start the project.
The best-kept secret at the MTA is The L Project, a weekly newsletter about the L tunnel rehab work. This week’s edition had a great section on work trains and the quiet steps they’re taking to reduce the disruption in service necessary to get them in position. Real “innovation” is rarely big, flashy, new technology, but smart people applying old technology to solve new problems.
The WSJ reports the MTA’s pilot to try and capture driver’s faces as they drive across the RFK Bridge has been a spectacular failure. But this is the part of the article that caught my attention: “After Mr. Cuomo touted the cameras at bridges and tunnels last July, MTA Chairman Joe Lhota said they would be used to help the authority catch scofflaws who tried to avoid tolls by covering up their license plates. But the MTA spokesman, Maxwell Young, said Friday that Mr. Lhota, who stepped down last fall, was incorrect and that the technology is only being used for security.”
After budgeting for it in 2015 and…never doing it, the MTA and the city will finally study improving transit along the Utica Ave corridor in Brooklyn, NY1 reports.
Last year, Cuomo announced a new arena/mega-development at Belmont Park in Nassau County for the Islanders. One of the pillars of this plan was LIRR service for game days at the very least, if not full-time service. At the time, I looked at a track map and thought, this ain’t right. Belmont Park is a spur line, which is very hard to deliver full-time service to without mucking things up.
Anywho, it seems someone involved with the project finally looked at a track map, too, because they’re now studying building another station there, this one on the main line, which can more easily deliver full-time service. But the logistics of that station are complicated by the presence of a highway and other people’s homes. Aside from the fact that building this complicated station would be a use of a lot of money the MTA repeatedly tells us they don’t have, they spent $5 million upgrading the Belmont Park station—which would become obsolete—in 2015.
The MTA has lots of under-utilized retail space in stations, so I’m excited to see Jessica Ramos at least prodding this issue:Sen. will announce she's working with the MTA on a pilot program to allow immigrant entrepreneurs + street vendors to work from currently vacant subway station kiosks.
One of these stands better get named Churros For Choo-Choos.
Alon Levy on mass transit’s cousin to security theater, prudence theater.
More on the MTA abandoning the full, independent review of the L shutdown reversal.
A neat story from the Times on the role freight rail can play in easing the city’s congestion problems.
I will be a guest at Caveat’s monthly Why Your Train Is F*cked show on April 25 (the asterisk is theirs, not mine). Tickets are $15.
Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World
Siiiiiiiigh:Paris region begins tunneling today on its 9-mile Métro Line 14 south extension to Orly Airport. It is one of eight metro projects currently under construction in the Paris region (extensions: Lines 4, 11, 12, 14 (north); new: Lines 15, 16, 17).
IDF Mobilités @IDFmobilitesC’est parti ! La #ligne14 fait route vers l’aéroport d’#Orly ! Le premier tunnelier Claire est baptisé aujourd’hui et va entrer en action pour creuser le prolongement au sud. La mise en service est prévue en 2024 #TransportsIDF @Ligne14_RATP @RATPgroup https://t.co/gN4ZOpmgOu
This is some damn, damn good public transit map porn.
"A new paper by Brandon Garrett and William Crozier of the Duke University School of Law finds that more than 1.2 million North Carolinians have lost their licenses for ‘non-driving related reasons’ such as not paying fees and fines. Their paper also documents racial disparities in these revocations. ‘Poverty functions differently for whites than it does for blacks,’ they write. This finding is in line with studies that show that fines and fees—and their myriad outsize consequences—are disproportionately imposed on African Americans.” (Link)
Look at this super-duper long boi.
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, so I’m stealing it.
A much less eventful state budget passed with the FHV surcharge. The MTA blew through its Enhanced Station Initiative budget after just 19 of the planned 33 stations.
The David Roth Award for the Esteemed Subway Rider of the Week
Remember to send in your submissions!
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 email@example.com.
Photo credit: @Kirkfitz
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.
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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.