Is the subway a depressing place?

Last week, a busker came on my train with a portable speaker and a microphone. He was a young guy, maybe late teens. I could detect the other passengers bracing for an unpleasant few minutes, ensuring they had earphones in for when he made his inevitable rounds. He introduced himself and warned us he would sing a Frank Ocean song. Then he started singing.

Within 30 seconds, he had the entire car’s attention. People were yanking out their earphones, looking up from their books, and halting their conversations. Half the people in the car raised their phones to record. I chose not to, partly because I’m not on Instagram or Facebook, but more importantly because I wanted the moment, not a recording of it. After all, no recording could possibly capture the mood swing in that car as everyone went from predicting an off-key belting to the gentle, soulful, gifted expression to which we were treated. The busker got so caught up in the song he kept going right through the next stop. He didn’t even make it to our side of the car for tips before hopping off.

I bring this up because I’ve been thinking about a tweet friend of the program John Surico recently wrote:

John Surico@JohnSuricoI don’t know if this is the case for you, but the NYC subway has become a very depressing place for me. This daily reminder of America’s disinvestment in its incredible infrastructure; rampant homelessness in a city beyond rich; and a frightening showcase of our tech addiction.

He’s right, of course. Not too long before John’s tweet, I was on the N train when two women wanted to know where to get off for some destination I had never heard of. They asked the man across from me, who did not speak English. But they kept trying to get him to answer. He gestured towards other people, like ask them. The women pointed to their ears, indicating that everyone else was wearing headphones.

But this cognitive dissonance—oh, every single one of those people knew what they were disconnecting from by plugging in—is no match for our collective dissonance from the homeless people. The people who regularly acknowledge the scale of the problem tend to do so only to lament the supposed lost ridership the homeless problem results in, as if the homeless people’s behavior is the problem and not the homelessness itself. Perhaps this is because there’s little else to say about it. There are a lot of homeless people on the subway.

But I try, I try very hard not to see it all this way. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes, it barrels into you like a thoughtless man sprinting to make a train he’ll never catch. Other times, you can still find it.

Not long before mini Frank Ocean, I was on the Q train with a guy in a Best Buy polo shirt, the kind employees wear. The train was crowded and he was standing in front of some seated passengers. With Airpods locked in, he started to bob his head to the beat only he could hear. Then the foot tapped and the shoulders started going. The fingers got active now. I’m pretty sure this was the point the hips started doing work. Then his hands left the pole. It’s not that he started break dancing, because there was no space for that. But, as if stuck in invisible bondage, he began to wriggle. It was the most spatially respectful busting loose I have ever witnessed. But he was feeling it. All the way from Canal St to Prospect Park, the dude was absolutely feeling it.

I could have easily missed him. I could have been on the other side of the car, another car entirely, or facing the other direction. But I got to see him.

It feels more and more like this is how we exist now, needing to really dig to find where the goodness is buried. John’s right about everything, but I dig deep. It usually involves a lot of people watching. When I am, I can usually find something good, and that’ll have to do, at least for now, until we no longer have to dig so deep.


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

The Times posted reporters at one set of turnstiles at Times Square to count/interview fare beaters. Because the article features a number of people who didn’t pay the fare for a bunch of different reasons, the reaction to the article has mostly been people selecting the quotes or anecdotes that fit their preconceived notion on the subject and forwarding it as proof they were right all along. I fully admit my first reaction to the article was to do the same.

But after some reflection, I think we have passed the point of being able to have a serious discussion on how fare evasion fits within the broader landscape of MTA issues. As I have written, fare evasion is a complex issue with lots of moving parts and factors. It is primarily a design and engineering problem—the turnstiles are extremely easy to hop and there’s a giant freaking door right next to them anyone can walk through—while others see it primarily as a criminal justice issue. It concerns me that some members of the MTA board, who have spearheaded the fare evasion question as they wrestle to balance the agency’s budget, are more than happy to lambast fare evaders and excoriate the Manhattan district attorney for no longer trying to throw fare evaders in prison (they still receive fines), but as of yet have not given any attention to design solutions like re-configuring the emergency doors or turnstiles which would accomplish far more than increased enforcement. It’s almost as if their primary motive is not to actually reduce fare evasion, but to shift attention away from their own actions and towards others. If that has been their goal, then it’s been an unqualified success.


It’s the year 2018 and a major labor union is advocating for the MTA to spend more money so people can walk through the tunnels banging on rails with wrenches and hammers rather than using a computerized train. Yes, the Transit Workers Union is not happy about the MTA saving $4.5 million a year by using a special train equipped with cameras to inspect rail—which is pretty common around the world—rather than employing lots of people to do it instead. In the NY1 report, TWU honchos make vague appeals to “safety.” If we’ve learned anything from the signal timers debacle and SPEED Unit work, it’s that this excuse of “safety” is precisely the institutional mindset that got us in this position in the first place.

I get the union has a role to play, and it plays its role well. But fighting modernity and change is a losing battle, not just for NYC as a whole but for their own relevance. The sensible, long-term approach is to advocate for that $4.5 million savings to be re-invested in job training programs for TWU members so they can fill vacant jobs elsewhere in the system.


Have you ever been standing at a station as the countdown clock says two trains will be coming in the next half hour but your phone is telling you the line has “Good Service?” Me too. One of the first things I tried to find out when I started on this beat was find out the official definition of “Good Service.” Well, last week, we finally got our answer:

NYCT Subway@NYCTSubway@andrewsiff4NY Hi there, scheduled headways are up to 8 minutes at this time, and good service is technically defined as 5 minutes of that. We are actively working to close that gap further. ^CG

Yes, simply by looking at the replies to @NYCTSubway one can often learn of service disruptions well before official announcements are made.


Apparently, it’s really easy to steal a city bus. Just drive off with the whole damn thing: “They’re push-start buses. You don’t even need a keyless fob. Anyone can just climb into a bus and push the button and drive wherever the hell they want. It’s a big problem.”

To be perfectly clear, Signal Problems does not condone taking city buses for joy rides.

Countdown to the Shutdown

The L train shutdown begins in 120 days.

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:

  • C – No service between W 4 Street and Euclid Av

  • E – All service runs via F line between Roosevelt Av and W 4 Street

  • F – No service between Jay St and Stillwell Av (change at Hoyt-Schermerhorn for G trains)

  • J – No service between 121 Street and Jamaica Center

  • M – No weekend service

Late Nights:

  • 2 – No service between Chambers St and Atlantic Av

  • 7 – No service between Queensboro Plaza and 34 St-Hudson Yards

  • F – multiple diversions

    • Brooklyn-bound service runs via E line between Roosevelt Av and Rockefeller Center

    • Brooklyn-bound service runs via C line between W 4 Street and Jay St

  • J – No service between 121 Street and Jamaica Center

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

  • Tokyo is trying to convince transit users to stand on both sides of the escalator. Get the hell outta here, Tokyo!

  • A new paper from two NYU politics professors: “Chinese mayors are interested in building subways to boost investment and fiscal revenue, which will help their political patrons build political credential and then help themselves get promoted.”

  • India will build 1,900 miles of walls around railroad tracks in an effort to reduce fatalities.

  • DC Metro revenue idea, since they’re considering accepting sponsorships for everything in the system: run a two-sided auction, one side a crowdfunding campaign to rename the blue line the Dan Snyder Sucks Line, and the other side being Dan Snyder bidding to keep it the Blue Line.

David Roth’s Distinguished Straphanger of the Week

On a packed and shitty crosstown bus that otherwise had a notably sour vibe, a little kid in a little kid-sized fireman coat was standing on his seat, singing and looking out the window. His mom let him pull the cord after every stop and he cheered every time he did.

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: Brent Bailey

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.

If you’re enjoying this newsletter, please share it with others. It’s the best way you can say thanks.

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.