Culture Change

If you haven’t become a paid subscriber yet, there’s still time before I send out the first paid edition. It will be about what I learned about the subway in 2018, along with some thoughts for what 2019 has in store. So much happened! So much is going to happen! Subscribe now to make sure you get it.


Last week, I spent a few hours riding around the subway with Phil Dominguez, head of the SPEED Unit charged with making the subway faster. It was, to use a technical term, a damn good time. We raced trains, rode around with the front door open, and otherwise chatted about the tricky parts of his job. You can read all about it in Curbed.

On Wednesday, Dominguez and Andy Byford took over the @NYCTSubway Twitter account for a beautifully nerdy Q&A. I think it’s worth highlighting, not just because their answers are fairly detailed, but it exhibits a level of transparency and dialogue with the public that would have been unheard of just a year ago.

Here are a few of the most noteworthy exchanges:

Streamlining Dekalb Ave Interlocking

Punch boxes are a series of buttons on a box next to the track. In order to align the switches properly so the train goes on the right track, the motorman will reach out the window and push the button for their line. Although it sounds low-tech, it’s actually a really efficient way to manage complex interlockings. The Dekalb Ave interlocking has worked differently for some time now, as the question outlines. It’s never made much sense to me, either! Glad to see they’re reviewing this, and the Dekalb interlocking issue in general.

More on the Manhattan Bridge later in the Q&A:

Reviewing the train plan, including crossovers

There were a couple of questions regarding crossovers and route changes in order to minimize instances where “a train is crossing ahead of us,” an announcement you may be intimately familiar with depending on your line. It’s great to see they’re looking into this, with Byford promising “more to come” next quarter, including the possible revitalization of the F express.

Challenges in communicating speed changes

There was an interesting moment when an operator on the J line said Dominguez told him to ignore a speed sign and asked what Byford thought about that. My Curbed article got into the challenges of communicating these speed changes to operators.

Prioritizing improvements for the L shutdown

The J/M corridor in Brooklyn is going to be prioritized for SPEED Unit work in the coming months in anticipation of the L shutdown.

High tech vs good tech

This explanation of why E trains now crawl in Queens is particularly interesting. Note how upgrading ancient components to new ones facilitated a redesign with “improved safety margins” i.e.; they slowed the trains down. This is why I wrote in Curbed, “Dominguez’s effort simultaneously highlights the need for [CBTC], and its limitations as a cure-all for what ails the subway…the machines won’t be determining the speed limits; humans will. CBTC, just like any other software, will only be as good as the humans programming and maintaining it.”

What’s with all the emergency brake activations?

One person said that in her 40 years riding the subway she’s never experienced so many emergency brake activations (BIE). Byford didn’t respond this way, but I suspect she is not experiencing more BIEs. Instead, the Twitter feed and alerts are far more transparent about the number of times they occur. In the past, NYCT would either use different terms to report delays or wait until they figured out why the train BIE’d and whether it would be a prolonged delay. It’s possible there are slightly more BIEs now than in the past, but I suspect not that many.

Economic impact analysis underway

Byford’s working on an economic impact analysis for the Fast Forward Plan, which I presume will conclude “Doing this will generate a bazillion dollars in economic value, and not doing this will cost us a bajillion dollars.”

Maybe the subway should just go slow? GTFO

I’m a little concerned about the person who asked this question, but I love the way Byford handled it:

I know that many of the issues raised in this Q&A have been irking riders for months, if not years. In most cases, Byford and Dominguez addressed them head-on. Previously, concerns like these were often dismissed by management—if they were even aware of them—as nitpicking. Maybe these won’t get fixed as quickly as some might prefer, or maybe they won’t be happy with the solution. Nevertheless, it’s worth taking a moment and reflecting on the fact that these earnest, detail-oriented conversations on speeding up the system signal by signal are even happening at all.

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

  • Not that I have to talk any of you into it, but I wrote an essay for Medium’s Love/Hate theme month about how we aren’t going to invent anything better than the subway at moving people in dense urban environments.

  • Reading the Metropolitan Transportation Sustainability Working Group Report this week about how to fix the MTA, I was reminded of the Ship of Theseus, an ancient Greek thought experiment about whether an object in which every part is replaced remains fundamentally the same object. If the Ship of Theseus has every wooden plank replaced one by one, is it still the Ship of Theseus? If everything about the MTA needs to change, would the new version still be the MTA? Anyways, the working group recommends congestion pricing along with a host of reforms, few of which will be new to regular S/P readers. I was particularly pleased to see health care cost reforms, culture change, and governance issues got prominent mentions.
    Also noteworthy, the report dedicates several paragraphs to what if we just admitted the MTA was a big mistake? It’s a good question but one the working group admits was outside their scope. If nothing else, I’m glad these high-level questions are taken more seriously than they have been in decades.

  • A state judge placed an injunction on the for-hire vehicle surcharge that was supposed to kick in on January 1, netting the MTA some $400 million in annual revenue which is earmarked for Subway Action Plan-like initiatives and a $50 million outer borough transportation improvement fund. Corey Johnson tweeted that this even furthered the case for congestion pricing, but even if Albany passed congestion pricing immediately, it would take about two years to implement. By my math, every day the FHV surcharge is not active from January 1 onward costs the MTA about $1.1 million, or the equivalent of 400,000 fare evaders.

  • The Times did a tweets-in-review summary of the subway’s year, which mostly served to remind me that the way we perceive the subway relative to other eras is highly influenced by riders’ unprecedented ability to document and widely distribute every inconvenience, mishap, or irritation.

  • Head’s up: the MTA is closing the 53rd St tunnel (where the E/M runs between Manhattan and Queens) from December 26 through December 31 for signal, power, and track work. The E will run along the F. More info here.

  • Fair Fares is supposed to launch on January 1 but as of now nobody has any idea how to sign up for it or how the program will work.

  • Here’s a really clever use of open data: using noise complaints to figure out the best subway stations to get off and party.

  • No, Amazon coming to LIC doesn’t change anything about the BQX.

  • Citymapper will now show you what your L-less future looks like.

  • Dollar Vans think they can help during the L shutdown. But the city is ignoring them, presumably because they don’t have a fancy app.

  • Good news in Albany as the longtime head of the Assembly Transportation Committee, David Gantt, has been replaced by William Magniarelli. Gantt has been a consistent roadblock to safer streets initiatives such as more red light cameras. Infamously, he’s held a bill that would make it a felony to drive after your fifth license suspension in committee for A WHOLE DECADE. I’m consistently awed by how state laws bend over backwards to let pretty much anyone drive no matter what so long as they passed a test when they were 16 years old.

  • A NJ Transit reform bill is expected to be signed into law by Governor Murphy. It mostly addresses governance reforms such as modifying the size and makeup of the board, creating an ethics officer to make sure whistleblowers don’t get railroaded, and requiring regular audits.

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

This week's estimate: June 2022

Change log (the links are where I explain the change):

May 25, 2018: June 2022

March 30, 2018: 2030

March 16, 2018: 2024

February 2, 2018: 2021

January 20, 2018: 2020

Your Upcoming Service Advisories, Provided by Lance from Subway Weekender

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

Weekend:

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

  • F – Jamaica-bound service runs via E line between Rockefeller Center and Roosevelt Av

  • G – No service between Bedford-Nostrand Avs and Court Square

  • M – No weekend service

Late Nights (Wednesday late evening to early Friday morning only):

  • 2 – No service between Chambers St and Atlantic Av

  • E – All service runs via F line between Roosevelt Av and W 4 Street (all times through Dec. 31st)

  • J – No service between 121 Street and Jamaica Center

  • L – No service between Lorimer St and 8 Avenue

  • N – Coney Island-bound service runs via Manhattan Bridge

  • Q – Reduced service between Atlantic Av and Coney Island

  • R – No service between 36 St/4 Av and Whitehall St

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

David Roth’s Esteemed Subway Rider of the Week

A well-dressed man who looked like Matt Harvey who refused to hold onto any of the available handholds and was flopping all over the place. His friends kept telling him to hold on and he kept insisting he didn't need to.

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: Alyssa Katz

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, freelance transportation reporter. 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 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.