June 1, 2018: A Legacy of Neglect

I don’t think anyone can successfully evaluate the Fast Forward Plan, Byford’s big plan to save the subway, without a tad of historical context.

There’s a reason virtually every history book about the subway stops before the MTA even comes into existence, around mid-20th Century. It’s because we didn’t build anything after that. There was a meme going around NYC Reddit circles recently, which pointed out that the entire Tokyo metro system was built (or re-built) post-WWII, a time span that has seen virtually no new mass transit construction here in New York (the Chrystie Street connection was the most substantial project, with honorable mentions to the 63rd St tunnel and Second Avenue Subway). In fact, NYC has fewer miles of rail track now than it did post-WWII, as many of the elevated trains were torn down.

At the risk of over-simplifying, we have one person to thank. The Big Kahuna. Robert Moses.

Even though he wrote The Power Broker 45 years ago, only nineteen pages into his 1,100 page tome on Robert Moses, author Robert Caro links the Master Planner to today’s transit crisis, the Fast Forward Plan, and pretty much everything else about the current state of the city’s transit:

By building his highways, Moses flooded the city with cars. By systematically starving the subways and the suburban commuter railroads, he swelled that flood to city-destroying dimensions. By making sure that the vast suburbs, rural and empty when he came to power, were filled on a sprawling, low-density development pattern relying primarily on roads instead of mass transportation, he insured that that flood would continue for generations if not centuries, that the New York metropolitan area would be—perhaps forever—an area in which transportation—getting from one place to another—would be an irritating, life-consuming concern for its 14,000,000 residents.

The only aspect of that paragraph that has substantially changed is that penultimate word. The New York metro region now has a population of more than 20 million. Everything else, cruelly, is still accurate.

This is because of Robert Moses. His reign began in earnest in the 1930s—just as the final major subway expansion was completed—and waned in the 1970s, ushering in the first of several subway crises thanks to his total apathy, even disdain, towards mass transit.

Not only did Moses purposefully neglect mass transit, but he ushered in an era of acceptance towards institutional waste on transit projects that we are still struggling to rectify today (from Caro: “So incredibly wasteful was Moses of the money he tolled from the public in quarters and dimes that on a single bridge alone he paid $40,000,000 more in interest than he had to.”). So when we decided to start building again—the aforementioned Second Avenue Subway, East Side Access, etc.—we couldn’t do so effectively.

Which brings us to the Fast Forward Plan. As I wrote in the Voice last week, “there is nothing in the plan, no bullet point, no highlight, no suggestion or item that isn’t worth doing or wouldn’t pay for itself in the long run several times over.” But, as the plan makes clear, it will take significant investment from lawmakers and patience from all. It will take billions of dollars over at least one decade, but probably more, to undo the process Moses started.

Some may balk at this bill, but how could it be any different? How could reviving our broken transit landscape be anything other than a generational endeavor after it took a generation to destroy it, and another generation afterwards to neglect it? By my accounting, in the 72 years since World War II, only five of them, from 1979-1983, saw New York City significantly invest both political and economic capital beyond the bare minimum into the subway. And that was only because the system was on the verge of collapse. (Reasonable people can disagree, to a point. Some may say it was as many as 10 years, or possibly 15. My point is unchanged.)

The MTA leadership, perhaps understandably, often urges journalists and the public not to dwell on past mistakes. Aside from the obvious logical flaw in that argument—how can we learn if we do not study? How can we know what it is we ought not to repeat?—I think the MTA should be doing the exact opposite. My main gripe with the Fast Forward Plan, which is more an intellectual than practical one, is it didn’t include a history lesson.

The legacy Robert Moses and other “great” men have left us, a legacy that has rendered us ill-equipped to cope with the basics of urban life, is the undercurrent to this debate. Through that lens it becomes obvious, to me at least, that Byford’s however-many tens of billions of dollars and a full decade of subway repairs is not only a relative bargain, but just the beginning. There is so much neglect to be undone. We have so much work to do.

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

  • ICYMI: After Byford released the Fast Forward Plan, Cynthia Nixon immediately threw herself behind it, Cuomo wouldn’t commit to it one way or another, a week later Cuomo said yeah it’s pretty good but managed to get in a dig at de Blasio while doing so, the MTA’s spokesman (who until last year was Cuomo’s spokesman) released a statement blasting Nixon for supporting his organization’s own plan while getting the facts and substance of the Nixon’s campaign’s criticisms wrong, and everyone was like huh that was weird.

    Shane Goldmacher@ShaneGoldmacher

    Why is a government spokesman responding to a political candidate's plan in the first place? (Let alone with the same message as Cuomo campaign) https://t.co/PfNl8lRBui

    May 31, 2018
    All this for a plan literally everybody—seriously, I have not heard or seen one dissenting voice—agrees is great. Politics is so dumb.

  • Speaking of: Eight Reasons Why Congestion Pricing Goes Great With the Fast Forward Plan to Fix NYC Transit

  • Stop me if you’ve heard this before: “But rather than provide them with useful information, some [LIRR] customers say the new countdown clocks have only added to their confusion.”

  • Google’s in-house incubator made a Waze-like app for the subway that allows users to report particularly crowded stations or annoying street performers. It’s invite-only so I don’t know if it will ever see the public light of day, but I highly doubt this app would actually improve anybody’s commute. Anyways, if you really want to know what’s going on with the subway, just search for tweets tagging @NYCTSubway.

  • The final edition of Better Know A Screwed Subway Line During the L Shutdown went up this week, in which I cover…everybody else.

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

This week's estimate: June 2022

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.


  • 2 5 - Manhattan-bound service is express-only between E 180 Street and 3 Av-149 St

  • 4 - multiple diversions

    • No service between Utica Av and New Lots Av

    • All service is local-only between 125 Street and Grand Central

  • A - No service between 168 Street and 207 Street

  • C - No service between 145 Street and 168 Street

  • D - All service runs via A and F lines between 59 St-Columbus Circle and Coney Island

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

  • F - All service runs via Q and D lines between Lexington Av-63 St and Coney Island

  • N - multiple diversions

    • No service between Queensboro Plaza and Ditmars Blvd

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

Late Nights:

  • 2 - No service between Chambers St and Atlantic Av

  • 4 6 - Downtown service is express-only between Grand Central and Brooklyn Bridge

  • 6 - Service is split at 125 Street

  • A - multiple diversions

    • No service between 168 Street and 207 Street

    • Downtown service is express-only between 125 Street and 59 St-Columbus Circle

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

  • F - multiple diversions

    • All service is local-only in Queens

    • Brooklyn-bound service runs via E line between Roosevelt Av and 5 Av-53 St

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

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

  • R - No service

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

David Roth’s Esteemed Subway Rider of the Week

The middle-aged dude on the 4 wearing a Thrasher t-shirt and camo Yankees hat listening to gospel on his phone’s speaker.

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: ace transit reporter Vincent Barone

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, transit reporter 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 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.