June 22, 2018: Is the Subway Getting Better?

It’s 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.

But before we get to that, a few quick programming notes:

  • If there are any graphic designers potentially interested in helping out with a simple project, email me.

  • I’m going to be on a panel with a bunch of smart people at the Center for Architecture on Thursday, June 28 at 6 PM. Hope to see some of you there.

Is the Subway Getting Better?

At Wednesday’s board meeting, Joe Lhota asserted that, regarding Major Incidents, there’s “no question that the rate of growth is in reverse.”

Here is the chart from this month’s committee materials about the metric in question:

I don’t know precisely what “the rate of growth is in reverse” actually means, but that chart represents perhaps the only scenario for which it could not possibly apply.

As you might have already gleaned, May was another “challenging” month for the subway, as head of subways Sally Librera put it in this month’s committee materials. During Monday’s meeting, Librera said she prefers the 12-month rolling average rather than month-to-month figures because it smooths out long-term trends. Unfortunately, this offers a pretty unflattering look at subway performance versus a year ago:

  • Weekday On-Time Performance: -1.8%

  • Weekend On-Time Performance: -4.2%

  • Weekday Trains Delayed: +7.1%

  • Weekend Trains Delayed: +21.4% (!!!)

  • Weekday Service Delivered: -.7%

  • Weekend Service Delivered: -1.7%

There is one indicator, however, that shows unambiguous improvement: Mean Distance Between Failure, or MDBF, which measures how often subway cars break down. I have nothing against MDBF per se. It’s a standard indicator of how the city’s rolling stock is performing, and it is performing 4.2% better now than a year ago. This makes sense; the Subway Action Plan pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into funding long-standing maintenance needs that had been cut by previous administrations.

But, a relatively small proportion of the subway’s delays are due to malfunctioning trains. According to NYCT’s data (which is being overhauled to better capture root causes, so I’ll allow that better data may slightly alter these figures) only 4.4% of weekday delays in May were due to car equipment.

It’s obviously good that cars are breaking down less often. And since the MTA is ordering a steady stream of new subway cars to replace older models for the next 15 years, MDBF ought to keep getting better. But it’s important to put delays due to car malfunctions into perspective. The number of delays prevented by better functioning subway cars is in the hundreds per month, or little more than a rounding error considering there were 71,572 delays last month. NYCT’s biggest task, of which it is well aware, is to figure out what is causing the tens of thousands of mystery delays.

Meanwhile, next month will be the Subway Action Plan’s one year anniversary. NYCT will try their best to argue, mostly for political purposes, that, to borrow a phrase, the rate of growth is in reverse. Unless something drastically changes between this month and next—and given the various meltdowns this week it is not looking good—and multi-year trends are suddenly reversed, there simply isn’t a convincing case the subway is running better now than it was a year ago.

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

  • “On time and on budget” is NYCT’s new favorite phrase when it comes to capital construction projects, but the latest committee report shows these are still the rare outcomes even for smaller jobs. Of the 16 projects finished in April, including CBTC-related projects, vent installations, and other smaller jobs, only four were completed on time.

  • If you ever tweet at @NYCTSubway and get a customer satisfaction survey in your DMs afterwards, NYCT is now reporting the results of those surveys to the board, so it might be worthwhile to answer.

  • The MTA will be closing three stations in Manhattan for the rest of the year for repairs and ADA upgrades: 57th St F, 28th St 6 and 23rd St F/M stations. The closures will start in July and extend through December. The press release doesn’t call this an Enhanced Station Initiative project but it basically is: “digital signage providing real-time information, countdown clocks, new railings or canopies, and brighter, more energy-efficient lighting. Turnstile areas will be upgraded with glass barriers, security cameras, new information centers and digital dashboards. Platforms will get new platform edge warning strips, accessible boarding areas, new seating furniture, digital dashboards with wayfinding information and new countdown clocks.” Meanwhile, Borough Hall is literally collapsing and during a press conference about finally re-painting parts of the 7 line so lead paint chips stop falling on the streets a city councilman in Queens said he’s surprised a portion of the 7 line hasn’t fallen down yet.

  • From the Department of Bad Looks: “Michael Horodniceanu, who stepped down a year ago as president of MTA Capital Construction, was just named a board member of California-based construction company Tutor Perini…Tutor Perini’s Web site lists $4.1 billion worth of work completed or pending by the company and its affiliates for the MTA’s East Side Access project.”

  • A Metro North employee was reported years ago for dressing up in blackface at a Halloween party. Metro North gave him a slap on the wrist and then promoted the guy months later. In light of this story, the MTA is re-visiting the incident and the Board spoke against blackface/racism, but it’s unclear what will come from this if anything. In the meantime, the guy has been suspended in some capacity.

  • NYCT hired longtime accessibility advocate Alex Elegudin to oversee the rapid expansion of elevators and other accessibility infrastructure called for in the Fast Forward Plan. His official title is “Senior Advisor for Systemwide Accessibility.”

  • Corey Johnson is introducing a bill to set up two information centers about the L shutdown. How does that phrase about the Titanic and deck chairs go again?

  • Due to the sheer number of transportation-related boondoggles in this city, the La Guardia Airtran project, which can now use eminent domain to seize needed property, doesn’t get nearly as much shit as it deserves.

  • A lot of details are still being figured out, but the new fare payment technology will be rolled out at select Lexington Ave stops as soon as October and along the entire line from Grand Central to Barclays (and all Staten Island buses) by May 2019.

  • LIRR really shit the bed for the Belmont Stakes during the one day a year in which the railroad actually uses the one-stop spur to Belmont Park. But LIRR president Phil Eng characterized it slightly differently during Monday’s committee meeting, referring to it as a triumph of sorts for the railroad in the face of adversity. “While this meant to slow speed, without the preparation we would not have been able to get our riders to Belmont in time to witness history.” So, yes, LIRR is patting itself on the back for not having some 30,000 people miss the Belmont Stakes because of a signal malfunction.

  • The Clark St tunnel project—the one that has screwed up 2/3/5 subway service every weekend for a year—is finally wrapping up (it’s worth noting they had to accelerate the pace of work and make service changes on weeknights too in order to finish on time). Service will be restored on June 25.

  • A look into the illicit underground Metrocard black market.

  • Emma Fitzsimmons at the Times asks: is it even possible to upgrade the signals as quickly as the Fast Forward Plan demands?

  • Good time for amateur designers contributing to transit discussions:

    • Graphic designer Adam Fisher-Cox has, by putting some degree of thought into the subject, created a vastly improved layout for the new Cuomo Countdown Clocks so we don’t have to stand there waiting for the screen scroll. Please do this, MTA.

    • Software designer Todd Schneider analyzed five months of countdown clock data in a thorough breakdown. It’s definitely worth a read, but I hope to return to this in more detail another week.

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.

Also, note the very exciting change that 2/3 service between Manhattan and Brooklyn will finally resume Sunday.


  • 4 - multiple diversions (Sat. only)

    • No service between Utica Av and New Lots Av

    • Uptown service is local in Manhattan

  • 4 6 - Downtown service is express-only between 125 Street and Grand Central (Sat. only)

  • 6 - Manhattan-bound service is express-only in the Bronx

  • D - All service runs via N line between 36 Street and Coney Island (Sat. only)

  • E - All service runs via F line between Roosevelt Av and W 4 Street

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

  • G - No service between Hoyt-Schermerhorn Sts and Church Av

We’ve got two weekend maps for you this week due to the multiple Saturday-only work.

Here’s Saturday:

And here’s Sunday:

Late Nights:

  • 2 - No service between Chambers St and Atlantic Av

  • 3 - No service

  • 4 - No service between Utica Av and New Lots Av

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

  • 6 - Manhattan-bound service is express-only in the Bronx

  • A - No service between 168 Street and 207 Street

  • D - Manhattan-bound service runs via N line between Coney Island and 36 Street

  • E - multiple diversions

    • No service between W 4 Street and World Trade Center

    • Manhattan-bound service is express-only in Queens

  • G - No service between Bedford-Nostrand Avs and Church Av

  • L - No service between Lorimer St and Broadway Junction

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

David Roth’s Esteemed Subway Rider of the Week

“If you’re okay giving it to dogs,” Roth texted me, “there were these two semi-chunky yellow lab service dogs on the R that instantly lay down parallel to each other, but with one resting its snout on the other’s back. Easily the best shit that I have seen on the subway or anywhere else recently.”

When asked why there is not a photo of this, Roth confessed, “I blew it. They were sort of far away but also I blew it.”

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: Miriam Parker and her dog Leopold Bloom

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 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.