July 20, 2018: Priorities

A quick note on submitting Dog in a Bag photos. Receiving these in my inbox at random times throughout the week is easily one of the best parts of my days. It is an absolute treat. Thanks to everyone who sends them in. Recently, I announced you can reply directly to this newsletter to contact me, which is true. But unfortunately that system does not support forwarding images, so Dog in a Bag submissions still have to be sent directly to my email address, aaron.wittes.gordon@gmail.com. Keep ‘em coming, and thanks again.

I thought a lot about priorities this week.

On Tuesday evening, TransitCenter hosted a panel discussion on subway accessibility. Of the many infuriating anecdotes from the evening, one from Monica Bartley, a local community organizer for disabled rights, stuck with me.

Bartley once tried to get from downtown to Union Square. For most of us, this is the simplest of subway rides: take the 4/5 up a few stops. But, due to a series of cascading events including broken elevators, inaccessible stations, and a host of other issues she could not have foreseen—I might be getting some of the following details wrong because there were so many mishaps and issues I cannot remember them all—Bartley ended up taking an impromptu tour of Manhattan’s subway, circumventing much of the island before finally emerging at Fulton St—practically right where she began—three hours later and taking a bus to Union Square. This was a particularly bad case, she conceded, but not altogether different from what she faces on a daily basis.

There is no scenario—from a legal or moral perspective—under which this state of affairs is excusable. It is also not a new state of affairs. It is, as several speakers during the Q&A session pointed out, a reflection of the city and state’s priorities.

That morning, the city’s Comptroller office released a report on the subway’s dismal accessibility. Fewer than a quarter of the subway’s stations are ADA-accessible, which affects not just folks in wheelchairs but also the otherwise mobility-impaired, the elderly, and parents with strollers. But in a practical sense, that doesn’t translate to “one out of every four subway stations are accessible,” because the accessible stations are not evenly spaced. The upshot of the Comptroller’s report: New York is a very different city for them.

Taking a step back, New York City’s “ADA transit deserts” are home to 199,242 mobility-impaired residents, 341,447 seniors above the age of 65, and 203,466 children below the age of five (see Chart 3). Aggregating these three groups—and eliminating overlap and redundancy—a total of 640,000 New Yorkers are confined to neighborhoods that are severely restricted from accessing the city’s vast subway network.

As early as 1980, the MTA was balking at adding elevators because it would be an “exorbitant cost.” Four years later, Mayor Koch blocked a move to install more elevators for subway stations, saying “I have concluded that it is simply wrong to spend $50 million in the next eight years—and ultimately more—in putting elevators in the subways.” He recommended the development of a para-transit system instead. Access-A-Ride, which essentially is that system, is a dismal failure of bureaucratic bullshit. The horror stories about Access-A-Ride—booking rides that are hours late or never show up, being driven around the entire city before getting dropped off—would be funny jokes if stripped of the dire context.

There are multiple ongoing lawsuits accusing the MTA of violating the ADA. Whether or not the MTA has violated the law, they and their legislative counterparts have certainly violated common sense and decency. One of the panelists on Tuesday, State Senator Gianaris from Queens—who issued his own report on subway accessibility the following day (spoiler: it’s very bad)—pointed out that the Enhanced Station Initiative renovations in his district spent some $30 million per station on tacky niceties of questionable merit but did not add elevators to those stations. How could this possibly be justified?

To Gianaris’s right as he posed this question was Andy Byford, the head of NYC Transit. (It should be noted the Enhanced Station Initiative began before Byford’s arrival, although he did defend it in a presentation to the board justifying its necessity.) As Byford reminded the capacity crowd, he made full subway accessibility one of his four equal priorities when he took the job in January, an historic break from his organization’s erstwhile apathy for the subject. That, at least, has changed.

So too has public awareness, thanks in large part to TransitCenter’s Access Denied campaign. The panel event was completely full. It’s hard to imagine that would have been the case a year or two ago.

And while the cost of accomplishing Byford’s goal is not prohibitively expensive as the MTA and the city have claimed for so long, it will nevertheless require lots of money. One estimate puts the cost around $10 billion, although, while claiming it’s too expensive to do—and this is one of those revealing bits so I’m setting it up with this em-dash aside—the MTA has never actually tried to find out how much it would cost.

Until now. Byford has commissioned a study of every station to find out for himself what the cost will be, not just for elevators but full ADA accessibility, station by station. But, yes, it will be expensive. Just like every other dire subway need is expensive.

While the MTA has, until recently, insisted full ADA accessibility is not feasible due to costs without knowing what the costs will be, they’ve spent $1.4 billion turning the Fulton Street subway station into a crappy mall, $4.5 billion on the first phase of the Second Avenue Subway, and something like $11 billion (and counting) on East Side Access, along with a host of other major capital expenditures (that Enhanced Station Initiative was another billion, for example). So, there’s money to do things, even very expensive things. Just not money for this very expensive thing.

So, we get to the question of priorities. In a column for the Village Voice this week, I raised the question with respect to the Second Avenue Subway, specifically asking whether short subway extensions or a total re-signaling of the entire system is a better use of funds. But those are not the only necessities (although I’d argue the Second Avenue Subway is a nicety, not a necessity). What about ADA accessibility? What about other subway extensions into actual subway deserts in places like the Bronx and Queens? What’s worth it and what isn’t and how do we make those determinations? I don’t have easy answers, but I do know the way those determinations have been made to this point do not comport with any known definition of rationality.

But what I do know is there’s not enough money for all of this. The MTA has $37.2 billion in debt and roughly one out of every five dollars it takes in goes towards paying that off. We need to do it all, and we need to have done it yesterday, and we can’t possibly afford it tomorrow.

Byford says and does all the right things when it comes to accessibility issues. He seems to genuinely, deeply care. Before the panel began, he told the story of how accessibility advocates in Toronto, where he previously worked, asked him to ride the Metro system in a wheelchair for a day. He did so and called the experience life-altering. He credited it for being the spark to his ongoing crusade for system-wide accessibility. But it is still one of four equal priorities for him—the others are fixing the subway, fixing the buses, and reforming NYCT culture—and two of those priorities are multi-billion dollar problems in themselves. I believe Byford when he says they are equal priorities to him, but I don’t know if the funding to address them will be equal. It may come down, once again, to priorities.

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

  • A possibility that is not mentioned often enough is that cost overruns/insanely expensive projects of all shapes and sizes is a feature of our transit authority, not a bug. To wit: Cuomo’s biggest campaign donor is a contractor who has received hundreds of millions of dollars in state contracts from authorities Cuomo controls, including NYC Transit and LIRR.

  • The Post published allegations from anonymous transit workers that a lot of subway equipment is broken. Some of the allegations—especially the stuff about broken speedometers leading to inefficient operations—is true but also nothing new. But this mostly reads like the Transit Workers Union (quoted in the article) starting to do some work before their contract expires in May.

  • A class action lawsuit against LIRR for being crappy is moving forward. It sounds like the plaintiffs really want to go to discovery to find out why the trains suck, which is potentially bad news for LIRR.

  • No, this doesn’t sound familiar at all. Why do you ask? “Herein lies the tension at the core of transportation politics in many American cities. Though elected officials and planners claim an interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing transit use, and producing more livable, walkable communities, when push comes to shove, it’s nearly impossible for them to make the hard choice: Reducing or eliminating space for automobiles. Indeed, in many cases, that choice isn’t even available for discussion. The planning for the renovation of Chicago’s North Lake Shore Drive—now underway—offers a useful example of this phenomenon. ”

  • Access-A-Ride, as mentioned in my introductory remarks, is the city’s biggest under-the-radar scandal.

  • The Daily News found out the Harlem derailment last year cost the MTA more than $3 million and oh by the way the Hudson Yards 7 train extension has been causing a lot of the rolling stock to need extra maintenance because their wheels get ground down faster.

  • Non-subway news PSA: get free entry to dozens of NYC museums with your library card. Although if you need a subway angle, the New York Transit Museum is one of the participating institutions. (I am a firm believer that parks, libraries, and the subway are the three NYC institutions that make this city truly special, by American standards at least. Everything else grows from their roots.)

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

This week's estimate: June 2022

Change log:

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.


  • 1 - No service between Rector St

  • 2 - No service between Gun Hill Rd and 241 Street

  • 3 - No service between 96 Street and Harlem-148 St

  • A - No service between 168 Street and 207 Street

  • C - No service between 145 Street and 168 Street

  • D - Manhattan-bound service runs via N line between Coney Island and 36 St/4 Av

  • E - All service runs via F and R lines between Roosevelt Av and Whitehall St

  • E R - Outbound service is express-only in Queens

  • F - multiple diversions

    • Downtown service runs via E and A lines between Roosevelt Av and Jay St

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

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

  • J - No service between Myrtle Av and Crescent St

  • M - No service

  • R - No late night service between 59 St/4 Av and Whitehall St

 Full service change map here.

Late Nights:

  • 1 - No service between Chambers St and South Ferry

  • 2 - No service between 3 Av-149 St and 135 Street

  • 3 - No service

  • 4 6 - Downtown service is express-only between 125 Street and Grand Central

  • 6 - Pelham Bay-bound service is express-only in the Bronx

  • A - Uptown service runs via F line between Jay St and W 4 Street

  • D N - Manhattan-bound service is express-only between 36 St/4 Av and the Manhattan Bridge

  • F - multiple diversions

    • No service between 18 Avenue and Coney Island

    • All service is local-only in Queens

  • L - No service between Lorimer St and Broadway Junction

  • N - No service between Queensboro Plaza and Times Square

  • R - No service between 59 St/4 Av and Whitehall St

Full service change map here.

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

While the MTA has set the goal of completing Phase II of the Second Avenue Subway, which is about a mile and a half of track and three stations, by 2029 (with revenue service beginning in 2027):

Second Ave. Sagas@2AvSagas

The MTA's updated Environmental Assessment doc for Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway is available for public review and comment, and well, it's a doozy. When might Phase 2 be completed? Glad you asked. https://t.co/MThKZUVYhs pic.twitter.com/2Xs1EOIYwc

July 19, 2018
This does not, uh, compare well with other projects going on around the world:

Second Ave. Sagas@2AvSagas

As a comparison, Paris is planning to open all of Line 15 by 2030. It's 47 miles of track and 36 stations.

July 19, 2018
Aaron W. Gordon@A_W_Gordon

So wait, this is going to take as long to build as Crossrail, which is a 73-mile rail line running through the core of London?

July 19, 2018
So not only do we build very, very expensively, we also build very, very slowly!

David Roth’s Esteemed Subway Rider of the Week

“A ponytailed man with the single thickest unibrow that I have ever seen and an elaborate chest/neck tattoo was on the R with an extremely good dog. The dog was very chill, the guy just kind of in his own world, and like five stops into Queens he asked whether the train stopped at 59th Street, because he needed to change to the 6. Some passengers told him that he'd missed it by, at that point, like 20 minutes of stop-and-go riding, but we talked him through it. As he prepared to get off at Roosevelt, the dog, Joey, briefly but with weird ease just shook off his leash. It took like four steps in one direction and then turned around and smiled at me and sat down. The guy scooped up Joey and got off. I propose that these two riders share this week's award.”

Dog in a Bag

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 aaron.wittes.gordon@gmail.com.

Photo credit: Britney Harris

Have a fantastic weekend, everyone!

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 transit reporter, mostly for the Village Voice.

If you’re a new or prospective subscriber, head over to the Subway Knowledge Base page for an introduction to the state of the subway and peruse the archive here. And 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 aaron.wittes.gordon@gmail.com. I’d love to hear from you. As someone on a stalled Q train once told me, we’re all in this together.