July 27, 2018: Is the Subway Getting Better?

It’s another MTA Board Meeting Week, which means it’s time for the monthly Is The Subway Getting Better edition. For a more detailed explanation on why I do this every month, hop over to the April 27 edition.

This week happened to be the Subway Action Plan’s one year anniversary, the $836 million plan to “stabilize” the subway. So there has already been plenty of ink spilledincluding by me—on whether the subway is any better. Short answer: mmm’nah.

So instead of belaboring the answer, I want to dive deeper into the question. Is the subway better than….when, exactly?

MTA Chairman Joe Lhota made a remark during Wednesday’s board meeting that helped me think about this. Much of the board meeting was spent discussing Executive Order 168, the one issued by Governor Cuomo more than a year ago declaring the subway a “state of emergency.” The EO did more than apply an apt label to our transit system. It removed red tape so the MTA could expedite repair work and fix the subway quicker.

This week, a few of those contracts came up to the board for ratification, and some board members balked at a handful of the supposed “emergency” measures, such as a $15 million proof-of-concept test for wireless communications technology that could, perhaps, result in upgrading the subway signals in a matter of years rather than decades.

(The kicker to this little side narrative: Lhota said even if the concept was proven, which it won’t be until December at the soonest, the full project would go through the normal procurement process. As one board member inquired, how does the MTA figure the proof-of-concept is an emergency measure but the project to actually fix the subways is not? Board member Andrew Saul pretty much summed up the conversation when he said: “We’re under all this pressure. We’ve got all this debt, and here we go, giving out major contracts without a bidding process, and I can’t see how anybody here could justify this.” But I guess they somehow managed because they voted for it.)

But back to the plot. A lot of the debate centered on what a state of emergency actually is and how it applies to the subway. Lhota said he interpreted the EO to mean: fix the damn subway as fast as you can. That sure does sound like it authorizes him to do pretty much anything. When asked by a board member, tongue-in-cheek, if they could just skip this whole begging-Albany thing and fund Andy Byford’s $19 billion Fast Forward Plan through this EO, Lhota quipped, “Don’t give Andy any ideas.”

Even while the subway is still under a state of emergency, the MTA argues they have “stabilized” the system through their $836 million Subway Action Plan, which Lhota himself announced just over a year ago. When asked how much longer he foresees that being the case, Lhota sighed before replying, “the subway’s been in emergency probably for 30 years.”

I’m not sure I agree with that time horizon, but in any case, the general idea is sound. The subway has been bad for a long time—something I have written some stuff about—and for various compounding reasons. But to take Lhota’s remark a step further, every time someone asks if the subway is getting better, we really haven’t defined what’s the baseline to which we’re supposed to be returning. And I think part of the reason is it would force us to reckon with the fact that the subway has been, as Lhota alluded to, crap for a while.

In 1993, the Transit authority was called out by an independent investigation for falsifying their performance stats. The year prior, they said 96 percent of trains left the terminal to do their runs on schedule. The actual number? 46 percent.

"For six years the Transit Authority sent people out to clock trains, collect data, write reports and set ever higher goals in an effort that turned out to be self-congratulatory and futile…The Transit Authority gave itself a test it could not fail."

…Yesterday's report "certainly should raise questions about any statistics they come out with, because if these are flawed then others could be flawed also."

We simply don’t know how well—or poorly—the trains used to run. But the fact is, when someone bothered to double-check the Transit Authority’s performance stats, they found its performance was much closer to what it is today than what it supposedly was back then.

More recently, Dan Rivoli of the Daily News has done a ton of fantastic reporting around efforts by the MTA to obscure performance data. They created a whole new stat because the old one was performing poorly even though their own experts were telling them the basis for using the new stat to judge performance was not sound. There were tens of thousands of mystery delays every single month that got blamed on “overcrowding” for years, a category they conjured out of thin air, only for the authority to admit this year it was never overcrowding; that overcrowding is the result of delays, not the cause.

As more of those performance metrics are digitized, and the countdown clocks provide publicly-available, real-time data that can be collected and judged, we move further away from relying on the MTA’s own stats. And, for what it’s worth, NYCT President Andy Byford has undertaken a comprehensive re-think on how the agency collects and analyzes performance data so they can actually pinpoint “root causes” and fix them. To this end, he vows to cut monthly delays by 10,000—currently around 70,000 per month—by year’s end.

Everything I’ve heard from folks inside the MTA on this project is to the good. But when we try and answer “is the subway getting better?” the only intellectually honest answer is to say we simply don’t know. Not just for right now, but historically. This isn’t to excuse the subway’s pitiful performance or the MTA’s gross mismanagement of the city’s most precious resource, but to emphasize that this pitiful performance and gross mismanagement is far from new. It’s protocol.

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

  • Here’s a very humanizing portrait of just how difficult it is to use mass transit in this city if you’re disabled.

  • I went on the Brian Lehrer Show on Thursday to talk about the state of the subway.

  • Here is a really important thread by ace NYT investigative reporter Brian Rosenthal about the MTA’s refusal to comply with public records laws to disclose what they think of their own contractors. I can add that my own interactions with their FOIL department has been less than ideal.

  • On Monday, the NYCT board gave an excellent presentation on ridership trends as they relate to other modes of transit. In short, people still use the subway about as much to get to work in the Central Business District (below 60th St) but everywhere else ridership is falling, pretty much in lock step with for-hire vehicles rising. You can read my Twitter thread on it and/or AM New York’s write-up.

  • Some members of the Transit Workers Union crashed Cynthia Nixon’s press conference near the Hoyt-Schermerhorn subway. On a completely unrelated topic, the TWU Local 100 contract expires in May.

  • An LIRR train from Hudson Yards to Penn Station derailed over the weekend but it wasn’t in passenger service so the MTA figured they wouldn’t tell anyone.

  • Ben Kabak of Second Avenue Sagas seems to usually be ahead of the curve when it comes to what plagues the subway and he is once again sounding the alarm over ridership figures.

  • The Greenpoint Ave G stop is getting three elevators and “updated station infrastructure such as stairs, handrails, turnstiles, powered gates and Braille signage.” Construction will start in September and last for 28 months. It will cost $23.4 million.

  • The MTA and DOT will be launching the 14th St Select Bus Service in January, a few months in advance of the L train shutdown, so that everything can be (hopefully) running smoothly by the time the L goes offline.

  • It’s a good thing the MTA is in such great financial shape and has no other dire needs facing its massive organization, otherwise spending $30 million to re-tile a car tunnel in Cuomo’s theme colors would look really bad. (The MTA refuted this report, saying the tunnel reconstruction was completely funded by a FEMA grant to repair Sandy damage, the original white tiles were never ordered so no waste occurred, and the money could not have been used on any other project.)

  • A handy guide to telling the difference between different models of subway cars.

  • Andy Byford has an armed guard to protect him against “aggrieved passengers.” Joe Lhota has two.

  • Adam Fisher-Cox has once again fixed bad NYC transit design, this time the laughably hideous JFK AirTrain departure screens.

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.

Weekend:

  • 1 - No service between 14 Street and South Ferry

  • 3 - multiple diversions

    • No service between 96 Street and 148 Street

    • All service is local-only in Manhattan

  • 5 - Reduced service

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

  • E F - All service is local-only in Queens

  • J - No service between Crescent St and Jamaica Center

  • L - No service between Broadway Junction and Rockaway Pkwy

  • N - multiple diversions

    • No service between Times Square and Ditmars Blvd

    • All service runs via D line between 36 St/4 Av and Coney Island

  • Q - All service is local-only in Manhattan

 Full service map here.

Late Nights:

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

  • 3 - No service

  • 4 6 - Uptown service is express-only between 14 St-Union Sq and 125 Street

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

  • E - Jamaica-bound service is express-only in Queens

  • F - No service between 18 Avenue and Coney Island

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

Full service map here.

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

  • Amsterdam opened its first north-south metro line, a project marred by delays and cost overruns. However, even this maligned project by European standards still looks good compared to the Second Avenue Subway. The final cost of $3.6 billion for the 6.1-mile line was still cheaper than the initial projected cost of Second Avenue Subway Phase I, despite being three times longer. And next time anyone tells you building in New York is hard because it’s an old city or some such, tell them Amsterdam built a subway for cheaper in a city with “soggy soil…built on long wooden stilts around 1300.” Also, the stations look way cool.

  • London’s Victoria Station had a little girl read a safety announcement recording instead of an adult and apparently it led to a two-thirds reduction in people injuring themselves on the escalator.

  • God dammit Baltimore: Ann Arundel County wants light rail service reduced because of “crime concerns.” But the only important clause in the story is this one: “While crime may not have increased…”

  • Even France is resorting to Uber to solve the last-mile problem.

David Roth’s Esteemed Subway Rider of the Week

“I am nominating a conductor on the 4 train who talked on the intercom the entire trip between Union Square and Grand Central. Once the doors closed, he got on there and repeated a series of familiar instructions—use all the doors, there's a train behind us—at what seemed like a strange time, and then talked about how 4 and 5 trains share the same track between Franklin Avenue and Grand Concourse, so if you can't get on one the one behind you will probably be less crowded. This led into a discussion of the fact that the train is crowded when there's a game at Yankee Stadium, and then noted that there was also a game tomorrow. At this point, everyone on the train was laughing whenever he'd pop back on and say ‘once again...’ and then be like ‘my cat's breath smells like cat food.' He brought us together and I am in his debt.”

Double 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: Bee Aldrich (again)

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, a freelance reporter.

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 or 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.