How cheap flights and globalization influenced the subway crisis

A few months ago I stumbled on a July 1984 three-part series about the subway from the New York Times. There are serious “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes” vibes between that series and the other three-part series on the subway the Times did 33 years later. Try to guess which year these bits are from:

But as a new leadership tries to pull the system from the depths, officials are finding that they cannot effectively spend so much money so fast. And they expect a level of service interruptions that will appall riders already accustomed to pacing crowded platforms and peering down empty tracks.

This one is easier, but the second half really stings:

For more than a decade, the subways have been a system in radical decline - with antiquated tracks, flawed rolling stock, water seepage in tunnels, a sharply rising crime rate, vandalism in the storage yards and on the lines, filthy and noisy stations and trains, misguided financial and management priorities, chronic purchasing deficiencies, entrenched but often unproductive labor practices, a defensive bureaucracy, political maneuvering and routes that have been undermined by changing demographics.

It’s not exactly news today’s MTA problems are very similar to those from 30 years ago. But there is something from the 1984 series I want to highlight.

After introducing the reader to his findings, the reporter, M.A. Farber—yes, that M.A. Farber—sought to contextualize the subway’s struggles with mass transit in other cities. He wrote:

With three times the route miles and number of stations as its nearest counterpart, the Chicago rapid-transit system, New York's subway system has no equal in the country. It carries three-quarters of the nation's rapid- transit passengers and dwarfs such older systems as those in Boston and Philadelphia and such newer ones as those in Atlanta, Washington and Baltimore.

And…that’s it! That’s the most detail you’ll find in the three-part series about non-New York metro systems. You won’t find any references to London, Paris, Tokyo, Berlin, Mexico City, or Seoul (being 1984, I wouldn’t expect any nods to Moscow).

Fast forward to the paper’s 2017 series. In the first part, the Times ran a sidebar graphic comparing the subway’s on-time performance with global metros. Part Two was specific to New York decision-making and politics, but Part Three, Brian Rosenthal’s Most Expensive Mile of Subway Track on Earth, has an entire section on “The View From Paris”:

But while the Second Avenue Subway cost $2.5 billion a mile, the Line 14 extension is on track to cost $450 million a mile.

This section was critical to Brian’s piece, in my view, as it scorched the MTA’s oft-repeated New York exceptionalism that the city is old so construction costs are higher, or that strong union traditions are incompatible with lower megaproject costs. And a few months prior that, the Times’s transportation reporter Emma Fitzsimmons went to London for an article on how the Tube managed to upgrade their signals so much more efficiently than the subway.

This, to me, is the key to contextualizing the current subway crisis and how to get out of it. This is the first subway crisis post-globalization, and as far as I see it, the powers that be have one chance to rehabilitate this system properly.

The 70s/80s crisis was about urban disrepair and physical deterioration. It was about the subway literally falling apart and being dangerous to ride. At one point during the 70s/80s crisis, it was, I kid you not, a 50/50 shot of whether a train would make its entire run without being taken out of service. Riding certain subway lines at night was considered a danger sport. The mean distance between failure for the subway’s fleet was 8,619 miles in 1983; the low point in 2017 was 113,022 miles. There were 20 derailments in 1983, compared to precisely one in the last year.

The occasional subway ceiling collapse notwithstanding, today’s crisis is not that. The subway is still safe, both from an operations and law enforcement perspective, and all other shortcomings aside the trains do in fact run. Instead, today’s subway crisis is one of relativity. Almost every other major international city’s mass transit system has significantly improved over the last 20 to 30 years. Meanwhile, our subway has stagnated, even gotten worse in some ways, from where it was then.

But it feels like the subway has gotten a lot worse because the MTA has been left in the dust by its former peers around the world. And unlike the last time the subway was in trouble, New Yorkers can easily and cheaply experience just how much better other cities have it. Plus, they can amplify their own daily frustrations thanks to devices and technology that didn’t exist 40 years ago.

The last subway crisis occurred before the internet, cell phones, cable TV, and cheap international flights. The internet and smartphones have had obvious effects on our perception of the subway; a small but vocal minority of New Yorkers document every indignity they experience on social media (ironically, this was facilitated by the rollout of cell signal in every underground station, one of the subway’s few effective modernization efforts). @NYCTSubway is a constant stream of reminders that our transit system struggles just to make it through the day. We can be hyper-aware of delays even when they don’t affect our journey at all. Whether these observations lay bare what New Yorkers have put up with for generations or if they’re exaggerating the subway experience by cherry-picking the negatives remains up for debate. A little of both, I’d imagine.

But, to me, the ability for many New Yorkers to experience better systems first-hand is crucial to understanding the modern subway crisis. In 1984, the Practical Traveler column in the Times advertised an “off-season fare war” from New York to London. Hurry and you could book winter midweek flights for a mere $378 round-trip! That’s about how many dollars it costs to make the same trip today, give or take, but adjusted for inflation that 1984 trip would cost $912 today. And that was a sale.

(Quick aside: upon landing in London in 1984 a New Yorker would have found a struggling transportation system there, too. The fact that the London Underground and the to-be-reorganized TfL network would become an international leader by the 2010s might have been as unthinkable to Londoners as it would for the MTA to become one by 2040s. The larger story, roughly speaking, is that London changed the governance structure [several times!] to find a model that worked while New York changed very little and presumed money would fix everything. In that way, London got better, New York merely restarted the cycle.)

Along these lines, here’s a note I received from reader Andrea K. last week:

I went to London for the first time this month and I was in awe of their subway.  Maybe if I lived there and commuted everyday, I would see that is has problems too. But to me, it was amazing. Trains arrived every few minutes. They were quiet and fast and didn't smell bad. Trains pulled into renovated, clean stations. Even escalators were faster. Everywhere I looked, there were signs and maps telling you where to go and what stops the train would make. It was super easy to get around, after years of training in NYC. 

I received a bunch of similar emails during peak holiday season as New Yorkers decamped for Paris, Amsterdam, Milan, and so on.Their countdown clocks measure arrival times in *seconds*, things of that nature. In fact, my favorite Twitter genre over the summer was New Yorkers Experience Good Transit. And, should one try and take public transit upon their return from our airports, it doesn’t take long at all to be “welcomed” home.

I’ve been fortunate to travel a fair amount, partly because I used to work for a media company that compensated for low salaries with travel budgets, but also because I once had an unhealthy obsession with airline miles. I’ve taken plenty of trips on cheap and/or “mistake” fares. And let me tell you, I do not miss a chance to tell New Yorkers how much shittier we have it, transit-wise, than other major cities around the world. In my opinion, the gap between bus systems is far larger than subways, but off-peak/weekend service on both subways and buses in New York is embarrassingly bad compared to peer cities around the world.

So it’s not just that more people can go on these international trips; there’s also the multiplier effect of jerks like me telling everyone else about how freaking incredible the Berlin system is, how convenient (and fun!) the London buses are, or how even Santiago’s metro or Rio’s BRT fills my New York heart with deep, deep shame.

This is the core reason why I was never sold on the Subway Action Plan, the $836 million maintenance-heavy program to “stabilize” the subway, but am far more convinced by the Fast Forward Plan, Andy Byford’s $40 billion modernization plan. I’m sure the SAP accomplished some marginal goals; if you throw $836 million at a very old subway system you’re bound to hit something that needs fixing. It was spray-and-pray, carpet bombing type stuff. It was also straight from the 1980s playbook, about doing the same things we have always done to restore the subway to how it once was. Progress by stasis.

And then Byford—an exemplar of a globalized mindset if there ever was one, albeit with an Anglo-centric disposition—comes up with a modernization plan, which ought to, if implemented, get us close to the transit system New Yorkers should have been promised around 1984.

I don’t know if the Fast Forward Plan will get funded or if it will work—see, for example, the note from the 1984 series about not being able to spend the money they have fast enough, something the agency still struggles with today, or the fact that we’ve yet to get any kind of specifics on this plan beyond a glossy brochure—but I do find some degree of optimism that New Yorkers are demanding more than the status quo and there’s a proposal to deliver it.

In that way, the most promising shift in New York City transportation over the last decade is that we increasingly don’t think of the New York subway as the best subway system in the country. Instead, we think of it as the worst big-city subway system in the world. This is, for better or worse, globalization in a nutshell, and, as it happens, a pretty solid metaphor for our country as a whole. Of course, both are still true; the subway is still the best subway in America as well as one of the worst in the world. But one now matters much more than the other.