It's The Reliability, Stupid

I wrote a pretty long edition last week so I’m going to give you just a little food for thought this week, plus a 30-second survey. More on that below.

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MTA officials often point out that most subway trips are on time. They’re right. About four out of every five trips go smoothly, according to a recent metric called Customer Journey Time, which measures the percent of journeys completed within five minutes of the scheduled time. (This is true of buses, too, which according to the same metric, three out of every four trips between 4 AM and 11 PM are on time, although I would love to see that broken down by time of day.)

However, I’d like to suggest the specific ratio of delayed trips to on-time trips is not particularly important. It misses the question of reliability.

Reliability is distinct from punctuality. Here’s an example: I had a friend in high school who reliably showed up 45 minutes late for everything, so we just told him the wrong start time. He was reliable, but not punctual.

The problem with the subway and buses is they are both unreliable and not punctual, so there is nothing to plan on. This is why all these performance metrics, while important, miss the crux of the issue: once a certain threshold is crossed, riders have to treat every journey like a delayed one. So, at least on some level, it doesn’t really matter if 20 percent or 30 percent or 50 percent of trips are longer than scheduled.

There’s a recent example of this dynamic in action: the King Street Pilot Project in Toronto, where the city essentially banned private cars to prioritize movement of the King Street streetcar (the head of Toronto’s transit system at the time: Andy Byford). It was an extremely controversial project. And one could look at the results of 1-2 minutes time savings per average journey and think the naysayers were right.

But they’re wrong for the same reason looking at Customer Journey Time and saying “well, four out of five trips go just fine” is wrong. Check out this graph from February about how the reliability of the streetcar improved:

And here’s more:

I’m curious how NYCT’s unreliability affects planned travel time. How much extra time do New Yorkers give themselves now? If you’d like to help, please fill out this two-question survey. It’ll take approximately 30 seconds. I’ll share the results with you.

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

  • With the dire climate warnings coming out of the UN’s IPCC report, I wrote about how New York City’s transportation sector is trending in the wrong direction. And here is a short interview I did with WNYC on the subject. For a broader view, check out CityLab’s piece on how we will never meet the IPCC report’s challenge with our transportation habits.

  • And here is Part II of my L Shutdown Series at Curbed NY, this time breaking down the bus options, which are the big wild card to the whole mitigation plan. I conclude: “To what degree NYPD is committed to keeping buses moving during the shutdown is the greatest unknown facing the entire plan.” 😬

  • The MTA has launched an accelerator for tech companies called the Transit Tech Lab. The challenges it is posing to companies to solve: “better predict subway incident impacts and serve customers” and “innovative technologies to make public buses faster and more efficient, especially in bus lanes.” Winning applicants won’t get any prize money, but they’ll be able to test their technology with the MTA.
    On the one hand, this is a low-risk high-reward proposition for the MTA. It doesn’t cost them any money and they get to appear hip with tech. One could very reasonably forward the “why not do this?” justification (unlike the Genius Challenge, the MTA’s previous attempt to tap into industry for solutions, which was generally maligned).
    On the other hand, the MTA is once again looking outside of the agency for solutions that could very well come from existing staff. After the Genius Challenge was announced, several MTA employees expressed deep dissatisfaction that the agency was essentially asking everyone else but them how to fix the subway. The same concern applies here: an MTA employee once showed me a functional prototype that would solve one of the two challenges announced this week. My reaction to seeing it months ago was “Why can’t I use this?” The organizational and management culture has incentivized him to keep it to himself. And he cannot apply for the Transit Tech Lab; it is only open to “Early- and growth-stage technology companies.” The Verge’s Andrew Hawkins told me that when he interviewed MTA president Patrick Foye about the initiative, he asked about in-house solutions, but Foye “didn’t have much of a reply.”
    So, for its potential benefits, it is at least worth considering how a highly publicized initiative for outside solutions might affect morale from the people inside the agency who are, ultimately, better positioned to address not just these two issues, but many more besides.

  • Some people (including me) are getting their hopes up about tearing down Madison Square Garden after its lease is up in 2023 to build a better Penn Station without an arena on top of it. It’s a sexy idea, but my former Village Voice editor Neil deMause, who has had his eye on this since at least 2013, doesn’t think much of it. The cost of re-building MSG—the city won’t get away with tearing it down without providing some kind of massive subsidy for a new one—in addition to whatever the Penn Station Rebuild would cost would surely run in the many billions, all for no actual train capacity increase. “Let the Garden be the Garden, start charging them property tax, and use the money to fix the buses,” he suggested. Now that’s a Genius Idea I could get behind.

  • The State Comptroller released a financial outlook report on the MTA and it’s…not great. Basically, service for every MTA property is getting worse, the MTA’s debt burden is increasing, it’s revenue is growing more slowly than predicted, health care costs for employees are rising faster than predicted, so if a recession hits, the MTA is screwed. A lot of these revenue projections are based on subway and bus ridership growing in 2019 and beyond, even though we are now in the second year of ridership falling, and if the Byford Plan gets funded, it will involve a decade of nights/weekends work on the subway’s busiest lines, so it’s not at all clear how they figure ridership would increase during that time.

  • Meanwhile, in New Jersey, “NJ Transit has no strategic plan, no retention program, no knowledge management program, and no succession plans,” found a long-awaited audit of NJ Transit.

  • “Fifty-five percent of transit riders in the U.S. are women. But very few have found themselves in leadership roles at transit agencies.” Here are the women of the MTA changing that.

  • Not that you need the education lesson, but here’s a roundup from AMNY on how bad subway service has impacted people’s lives.

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.


  • 3 4 – No service between Utica Av and New Lots Av

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

  • J – No service between Crescent St and Jamaica Center

  • L – No service between Broadway Junction and 8 Avenue

  • Q – No service between Prospect Park and 96 Street

  • R – No service between 36 St/4 Av and Bay Ridge-95 St

Late Nights:

  • 2 – No service between Chambers St and Atlantic Av

  • 3 – No service

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

  • E – No service between Union Turnpike and Jamaica Center

  • F – All service is local-only in Queens

  • L – No service between Broadway Junction and 8 Avenue

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

David Roth’s Esteemed Subway Rider of the Week

“A young, professionally dressed woman on a very loud and wobbly 4 train going downtown managed to successfully eat, while standing, one of those plastic clamshell container things with a bunch of crackers, a wedge of brie, and some sliced pear in it. She was, often, not holding onto anything while she did so. It was like the MTA version of that Free Solo movie and I wanted to high-five her when she finished.”

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

Photo credit: Paul Goebel

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

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 I’d love to hear from you. As someone on a stalled Q train once told me, we’re all in this together.