Exit Interview Mailbag, Part I: Transit

Welcome to Part I of the Signal Problems Exit Interview Mailbag. Today we’ll focus on transit-related questions. Part II will be about non-transit stuff such as the newsletter itself, journalism in general, questions about me, etc. And then after Part II, there will be a final sendoff.

The Signal Problems Farewell Tour continued last week, with stops at Caveat’s highly educational and entertaining Why Your Train Is F*cked live show, plus a great conversation with Second Ave Sagas on his new podcast.

Now, to your questions.

I renew my request for an update on when the subways will get better. -Pat Foye

For newer subscribers who may not know what Mr. Foye is referring to here, the newsletter used to have a section titled “In Which I Make An Educated Guess About When Things Will Get Better.” But I discontinued the section in February because, as I explained then:

I’m simultaneously becoming more optimistic about the short term and pessimistic about the long term. I can’t figure out how to balance those two outlooks into one prediction. So you know what? I’m going to stop trying to predict the future, because there’s plenty to keep me occupied in the present.

This is how I still feel today, but for the sake of entertainment, I’ll try and predict the future.

But first, let’s talk about the present. The subway has gotten better. Anyone paying even a little bit of attention must have noticed this by now. I have argued the reason for this is largely due to Andy Byford’s Save Safe Seconds efforts, not the $836 million Subway Action Plan, perhaps along the lines of 85 percent Byford’s campaign and 15 percent the SAP.

So if the question is “when will the subway get me to work reliably?” the answer is: we’re pretty much there. We have come a long, long way since the summer of 2017.

But if the question is “when will the subway function like a world-class metro system?” then that answer depends largely on what comes next. What will be in the next capital plan, which should be released this year? Will Andy Byford get to do the re-signaling he and his signals lieutenant, Pete Tomlin, were brought in to do? If they do get the money, can they pull off the very aggressive timeline (or stick around long enough to do so)?

Personally, I’m not holding my breath that NYCT will be transformed into a world-class transit agency any time soon. I believe the Governor does not have the leadership disposition to permit that. He is a superb political strategist, but that is a different skill set.

But this isn’t just on Cuomo. The New York City subway has not been a global leader for well over a half-century, and probably even longer. Certainly never in the MTA era. So this leads me to further weight against the possibility, as it seems to be structurally difficult for the MTA to do anything other than seesaw between crisis and complacency.

I am a pessimist, so weight this prediction accordingly. But I’ve seen little evidence thus far of long-term reform efforts that will truly flip the dynamics at the MTA, resulting in a better, more efficient organization. To borrow a term from Alon Levy, I see lots of prudence theater.

But please, Mr. Foye, prove me wrong. I would love to be proven wrong on this one.

New York City seems to have a whole cottage industry surrounding its transit system (including dedicated media, advocacy groups, whatever else). For those of us based in smaller cities that might not have the same dedicated coverage, what is the best way to keep abreast of local transit issues? Is it simply to go sit in on council meetings? -Ryan Murtha

I’m not the best person to answer this, as I’ve lived in big metro areas my entire adult life.

A good first step is set up a bunch of Google Alerts for basic terms like “[your city] transportation] or “[your city] bus” or whatever. This ought to clue you into who is writing about it and help you follow whatever is out there.

Do check your local papers, though. They ought to be doing some coverage of transit issues. And if they’re not covering it as much as you’d like, it never hurts to write a (nice!) note letting them know that is a subject you’d be more than happy to pay for.

Also, look to see if there are any local transit advocacy groups you can join. There might not be any. If so, maybe you can start one. Perhaps there’s nothing so formal as an advocacy group, but perhaps there’s a Facebook Group or something.

I wouldn’t advise sitting in on local government meetings. It is a very time-consuming task and not realistic for many people who have jobs. Further, in my experience, local government meetings are not a good way to learn anything about your transit system, but it is a good way to learn about the popular misconceptions about your transit system from people who don’t actually use it. If you do have the time and disposition to do this, though, consider writing about it; if not for the local paper, then for your own project.

Finally, look for independent writers with blogs or…ahem…newsletters. Transit is something lots of people are deeply passionate about. I’ve been pleasantly surprised as the vibrant, knowledgeable community that exists on these topics.

I've been working on a multimedia project about how people with disabilities utilize public transit. I was curious if you ever see the MTA getting its act together in regards to providing more ADA service/updating elevators/etc? -Jason Bergman

We’ll see, when the next capital plan comes out this year, how much is dedicated to accessibility issues.

I’m cautiously optimistic the MTA will stick to some form of their 50 more accessible stations promise (whether it will be stations or station complexes, something I discussed in my interview with Jessica Murray, is another matter). Not because I think the MTA suddenly cares—although I do think advocates have done a laudable job getting them to—but there are serious legal risks in avoiding the issue much longer.

Nevertheless, they absolutely must find a way to install elevators more cost-effectively and maintain them better. If history is any guide, accessibility initiatives get the axe whenever there are budgetary pressures. $30-60 million per station (or, in some cases, even more) will put the MTA in an untenable position, budget-wise, to install all the ADA infrastructure it needs. Relying on public-private partnerships won’t cut it, because it’s difficult to uphold elevator reliability standards when the MTA doesn’t own them.

What if anything have you seen being done by the MTA about climate change? It seems like everything is just to maybe keep things running at a minimum level. Are there any thoughts toward these coming problems? Are they maybe doing more planning compared to some other agencies? -Jason Phillips

The MTA is actually doing a fair bit on this front. I haven’t done much reporting on this subject, but my impression is Hurricane Sandy was a big wake-up call, since the MTA had to spend far more money (although much of that money comes from the Feds) repairing damage from Sandy—it’s still not done yet—than what it would cost to prevent damage in the first place.

To that end, here’s an MTA resiliency report from 2016 and my former Village Voice colleague Neil deMause’s feature on the subject from that same year. The MTA also has a (buried) web page on resiliency efforts, but I can’t tell when it was last updated. I think it was launched in conjunction with the resiliency report. Further, there’s a section in the Fast Forward plan about resiliency.

To Jason’s point, it’s definitely true this issue hasn’t been brought up much in recent years as the focus has understandably shifted to more urgent matters. But many of the projects to address these resiliency issues were funded in the last capital plan, so they wouldn’t have been affected by this. That work is still quietly being done. The question is if this will have any impact on how funding is allocated in the next capital plan. It’s something to keep an eye on for sure.

What policy initiative or statutory change could help avoid or mitigate cycles of investment followed by underinvestment on a national basis? -Pat Foye

Unfortunately, we live in one of the few developed countries where a major political party simply doesn’t believe the government should be a involved in public transit but should be funding highway infrastructure and keeping gas prices low. In fact, Republicans often view funding public transit projects as a form of social welfare, which they oppose as a matter of course. These boom and bust cycles seem to me roughly correlated to which party is in power, so the question is more about how to create consistent national priorities that survive from party to party. I don’t have the answer to that.

There are all types of proposals to maintain more consistent funding for public transit—make it a regulated public utility, empower real estate arms of transit agencies to develop more, raise the gas tax and direct a chunk of the revenue to transit, etc. etc.—but every idea runs into the problem of how to convince the party that caters to rural voters—and are therefore fundamentally uninterested in public transit—that it should view urban/suburban transit as anything other than social welfare, or, alternately, a handout to urban elites (political arguments from the same party don’t have to be intellectually consistent). I don’t have a good answer.

What was the most interesting thing you discovered about the subway while writing for Signal Problems? -John Brady

Most of the interesting insights I’ve gleaned in my time reporting on the subway have not been any of the individual puzzle pieces I’ve put into place, but rather the picture all those pieces form. Reporting on the MTA is like reporting on a small city. You learn a little something about how that city works, but it is rarely interesting in isolation. Only in larger context does it gain meaning.

In that way, everything I learned about the signal timers immediately comes to mind. I remember seeing the subway performance reports provided to me for the first time—documents that had been regularly provided to upper-middle management for years and were later made public in the appendices of a City Comptroller report—and being aghast at what a clear a picture they painted, one entirely different from the narrative the public had been told for years. It took no more than five minutes of casually flipping through the charts to see everything we had been told was wrong. And that was the key to unlocking the timers story.

A more subway-trivia choice would be that there is a good reason for the D/F swap that happens some nights/weekends in Manhattan:

There's track work on the D line between 59th and Rockefeller Center. Because of this, the D has to run south via the 8th Ave line. After West 4th, it can switch back to the 6th Ave line. However, the link from the 8th Ave line to the 6th Ave line and vice versa only connects the local tracks of each line. There's no way for a southbound 6th Ave local train to switch to the express track south of the merge with the 8th Ave line. So the D is forced to stay on the 6th Ave local, which leads to the F line. There's no way to get back to the D line. So they're forced to send the D's via the F, so the F's are rerouted via the D to fill in.

It’s a good example of a time when, to a casual observer, the MTA is doing something that makes no sense and seems patently silly. Whenever this service advisory is in effect, I see people constantly dragging the MTA on Twitter for it. But there’s actually a very good reason.

I spent the better part of two years writing about all the ways the MTA was screwing up. I certainly am so stranger to criticizing them. But, they do know what they’re doing sometimes.