June 15, 2018: Psychedelic Neoliberal Whimsy

Transit reporters don’t go on vacation, we merely explore other transit systems. Anyways, I’m doing that this week, so I asked Deadspin editor and friend of the newsletter David Roth to write something for you. I’ll be back next week. Enjoy!

There is something just and also something sad in the fact Aaron was not here to read the single most ridiculous story that has yet been written about New York City’s subway system. I should probably mention here that Aaron is fine—he is not gone, he is just in the United Kingdom, where he is enjoying various beige foodstuffs and mostly staying the hell offline; I am pretty sure he is fine, give or take the usual beige-foodstuff malaise that afflicts travelers in those parts. Aaron is, at least in the sense that he has not read Peter Wayner’s article “The New York City Subway Is Beyond Repair,” which ran on The Atlantic’s website on Sunday, In A Better Place.

If you are reading this, you’re probably someone whose interest in mass transit likely falls somewhere between A Decent Amount and It Has Impacted Things At Home If I Am Being Honest. Even as such a person, it would make sense if you had not previously heard of Peter Wayner before he proposed, on the website of one of the nation’s most prestigious magazines, that New York City’s subway system be ripped up entirely so that the tunnels could be paved, re-lit, outfitted with more advertising, and turned into a subterranean superhighway for single-passenger autonomous hoverboards. This is not a joke. Or, anyway, it does not immediately announce itself as a joke:

Instead of fixing the old trains, let’s rip out the tracks and fill the tunnels with fleets of autonomous vehicles running on pavement. The result would be radical improvements in throughput while saving money and increasing the ability of the system to survive a fire, flood, or terrorist attack… Savings in time and energy would come from replacing extremely heavy trains that stop at every station with lightweight vehicles that depart immediately and go directly from A to B, stopping only at one’s destination. No more waiting or stopping every few blocks.

I know what you’re thinking: yes there would also be dynamic pricing for this hoverboard service. I know what else you’re thinking, and no, none of this is made up. As someone who cares about transit, there is no reason for you to read this piece. But as someone who enjoys reading—and if you’re one of the people that hasn’t bailed on this by now, I will go ahead and assume that you fit this description—you should absolutely check it out. There is no idea of even the faintest merit in it, but goddamn if it isn’t a thrill ride all the same—a deliciously preposterous proposal to quite literally replace a subway system that serves millions of people each day with another infinitely dumber system in which the same number of people tootle around on rechargeable electric scooters underground—not because traveling in trains with other people is outdated and gross, but because the alternative would be both more efficient and less expensive.

Which...look. You will probably not be surprised to learn that Wayner is a crank. He is, as his Atlantic bio mentions, “the author of almost two dozen books on technology, theater and the cars of the future,” but he also has no real expertise on this topic and nothing much to say about how New York’s subway might be saved or why it should be destroyed. With all due respect to Wayner’s bibliography—and I will confess that I have not read SAT Sneak Attack or Java RAMBO Manifesto and as such am not an expert—there is nothing in Wayner’s story that suggests his opinions on mass transit needed to be heard. There is also nothing in Wayner’s story that suggests that he’s familiar with even the roughest rudiments of how the city’s subway system works. This is in part because the whole thing is written in such a bizarre and guileless way. My nephew, who is six-years-old and very smart and very much in love with the subways, would have bailed on this idea around the part where Wayner writes:

The stations would have to be redesigned, outfitted with little entrance and exit ramps that carry that cabs which carry the riders up to where the turnstiles are now. This way, the traffic would never stop flowing.

But there is nothing in the story, which predictably became a sort of viral anti-sensation immediately upon its release, that suggests that even Wayner had given it much thought. He started out with a series of principles—individual things are intrinsically better than mass things; private competition will invariably deliver better service than a public good; old systems are not as good as new systems; it would be cool to turn the subways into a single continuous billboard for the 1-800-DIVORCE law firm—and then threw a bunch of scooters at it and called it a day. The story that came out of this is a literary delight because of how it builds and builds into new heights of psychedelic neoliberal whimsy, but there’s no reason why any website anywhere should run it. This dude does not know what he is talking about, but also he does not care about what he’s talking about. Anyone, even a dopey sportswriter picking up a shift on his friend’s newsletter while he’s out of town, can tell you as much.

And yet there it is: at The Atlantic’s website, lurid and goofy and not remotely in anything even adjacent to good faith. It’s useless in every way except one—as a reminder of how manifestly bad the arguments against mass transit are, and also of how easy it is for those awful arguments to get a hearing in respectable outlets. The arguments for futuristic gimcrackery won’t always be as ridiculous as Let’s Get Six Million People Zooming Around On Scooters Underground, For Efficiency’s Sake. It’s honestly hard to see how they could be more ridiculous than that. But it’s a decent reminder for those of us who don’t just care about but depend upon mass transit to make our regular lives workable—we need to advocate for solutions that work for us, but we also need to remind the people with the most influence and the least skin in the game to keep their eye on the ball. We’ll get to a more fully Jetson-ian transit system when we get there. For now, maybe we can focus on making the one we have do what it’s supposed to do.

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: @UWS_Cyclist

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.

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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.