May 18, 2018: What Kind of City Are We?

I’m not going to talk about the big L train shutdown news from yesterday I published over at the Voice because honestly I can only spend so many hours in a week thinking about how screwed we are. Also, the article pretty much speaks for itself.

So does this:

Now, back to our scheduled programming.


I like the transit beat because it’s one of a handful of issues—along with housing and education—that reveal a city’s true character. You can talk all you want about fairness, equity, and other lofty values, but how people live, how people get educated, and how accessible the city is reveal fundamental truths.

Here in New York, the Mayor has made fairness the tagline for his final term: “The fairest big city in America.”

Reasonable people can disagree on what a fair city looks like, but when viewed through the Housing, Education, and Transit lenses, New York doesn’t appear very fair. In fact, it appears to be one of the most unfair cities in the country. Article after article documents the city’s housing crisis, to which I’m sure you need no introduction. Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote one of the most illuminating pieces on school segregation in modern New York, particularly in Brooklyn, but the tl;dr version are these white, wealthy Upper West Side parents protesting the integration of “tremendously disadvantaged” kids, as the school principal described them, because reasons.

As for transit, NYC has a better case for fairness thanks almost entirely to the subway, though the subway’s history is complicated with a lot of actors seeking to use it as a tool of segregation, breaking up ethnic enclaves in lower Manhattan, or creating WASP-only enclaves in Queens with easy access to Manhattan. But the end result has been, by and large, a more dynamic, diverse, and resilient metropolis.

Unfortunately, this is breaking down, thanks to the affordable housing crisis but also because of rapidly decaying transit which disproportionately affects people with longer, cross-borough commutes. It’s a multi-part whammy: the working poor can no longer afford to live near the city center where the jobs are, and access to that city center is getting harder (there are many more such whammies involving health care, other key public services, and the gig-economization of employment; each of those topics are related but larger issues in their own rights).

As people are forced to housing away from subways where rent is cheaper, many must resort to buses. We see this quite starkly in the demographics of bus vs subway riders. According to a report from the City Comptroller’s office, “the average personal income of bus commuters is $28,455 – far lower than subway commuters ($40,000) and employed New Yorkers as a whole ($38,840).” Bus riders, the report concludes, are also more likely to be elderly or disabled, because buses are ADA accessible and the vast majority of the subway is not. Meanwhile, buses are slower than ever, wreaking havoc on the lives of those who rely on them.

At the risk of being a long run for a short slide, this is the larger context in which Emma Whitford, Jake Offenhartz and I set out to figure out who is taking the ferries, a mode of transit for which de Blasio has held eight press conferences and has rapidly expanded during the last few years. He has now dedicated some $600 million in capital investment by 2022 to expanding the ferry network. Our survey of 60 riders during peak periods was admittedly unscientific, but it was the best we could do; the Economic Development Corporation which runs the ferries declined to release the data from their survey of almost 1,300 riders, including their home zip codes, to help us answer the question of who rides the ferries (our FOIL request for that data is outstanding).

Anyways, onto our findings:

Ferry riders are, by and large, higher-income New Yorkers taking advantage of subsidized ferry rides to avoid subways and buses — not because it’s a faster commute, but because of the ferry’s creature comforts such as elbow room, concessions, alcohol, WiFi, and the fresh sea air.

And:

Nearly every rider interviewed by the Voice said they used to take the subway to work. Fifty-eight percent of them said they took the ferry exclusively for its comforts despite having viable — and often faster — subway alternatives.

The ferry is a subsidy—$6.60 per ride—for generally higher-income New Yorkers to not take the subway. The city/state also subsidize subway rides ($1.29 per ride) local buses ($3.58), LIRR (~$8), and express buses (~$15 [yes, fifteen]).

Like everything else I write, I would be happy if it merely makes you think about the state of things. Specifically, about what fairness in a big city looks like to you. Does fairness look like everyone paying the same fare for every mode of transit regardless of whether it’s a ferry, a bus, or a subway? Or does it look like ferry riders, who appear to be making roughly double the median income of bus riders, getting double the subsidy for their rides? Does it look like more city money being dedicated to improving ferry service than bus service, even though more than two million riders a day take the buses, about 200 times more than the ferry? Does it look like a Mayor who drags his feet on “fair fares,” half-priced Metrocards for the city’s working poor, while shoveling money into the ferry coal oven?

But people love the ferries. What’s wrong with that? was a common response to our article, and one I must confess I found deflating. I didn’t respond to them. Those people are getting the city they want. This, apparently, is what fairness looks like to them.

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

  • The MTA can’t say whether or not removing seats on some E trains had any impact because “there were too many variables that impact service to truly make a determination.” What is the point of a pilot program if you can’t measure whether or not it’s working?

  • Now that summer is approaching, seems like as good a time as any to remind everyone Second Ave. Sagas has a spreadsheet tracking subway cars without A/C which I believe is officially called the Hot Car Spreadsheet. You can update it here.

  • You may start hearing a new voice on some subway car announcements and it will have a slight New York accent. Here’s the skinny on that.

  • The Enhanced Station Initiative is coming to Penn Station starting May 20. It won’t affect service, but “some passageways and turnstile areas may be closed during demolition and repairs” according to the MTA, as well as some entrances closed one at a time. It should conclude in “less than eight months” so around February 2019.

  • “Observe that the LIRR is spending about as much on a legacy tweak as Denmark and the Netherlands are on a high-capacity system built from scratch.”

  • A good look into the diversity issues on transit boards across the country.

  • Yet another company acknowledging the existence of sexual lady parts has not been allowed to advertise on the subway. Considering how much press coverage this has gotten, getting your ad banned from the subway seems a more effective ad than advertising on the subway.

  • This Newsday article follows LIRR’s thread that GPS navigation systems are to blame for the rise of cars driving onto train tracks, but roughly midway down the article says, “Despite the pervasive problem of drivers accidentally turning onto tracks, the LIRR said the most frequent cause of accidents at railroad crossings remains motorists ignoring lowered gates and other safety devices in a rush to get across the tracks.”

  • The slightly-more-complicated story behind the business boom around the Second Ave Subway.

  • Security cameras are coming to NJ Transit trains.

  • A completely historically-accurate account of how the wait time between swipes on an unlimited Metrocard became 18 minutes.

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

This week's estimate: 2030

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:

  • 2 - No service between E 180 Street and Dyre Av

  • 4 - multiple diversions

    • No service between Utica Av and New Lots Av

    • All service is local-only in Manhattan

  • A - multiple diversions

    • No service between 168 Street and 207 Street

    • No service between Howard Beach and Far Rockaway

  • 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

  • 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 R line between Canal St and Atlantic Av

  • S (Rockaway Park) - No service between Beach 90 Street and Broad Channel

Full-resolution map here.

Late Nights:

  • 1 - No service between Chambers St and South Ferry

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

  • A - No service between 59 St-Columbus Circle and 207 Street

  • D - No service between 161 St-Yankee Stadium and 59 St-Columbus Circle

  • E - No service between Briarwood and Jamaica Center

  • F - Jamaica-bound service is local-only in Queens

 Full-resolution map here.

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

  • This is goddamn brilliant: Sydney is now providing real-time train crowding information to passengers on many of its suburban rail trains, not by counting passengers, but by weighing the trains! “Under each axle is an airbag with an air pressure meter attached — the psi reading translates to the kilogram weight of the carriage. Each night when the train goes to bed in the yard, it’s like the equivalent of hitting the ‘tare’ button at the fruit market. Then it’s just a matter of dividing that by the average weight of each commuter (which took a bit of trial and error to figure out). As the doors close at each platform, the carriage weights are recorded and sent over 3G. The carriage weights get through to the app around 10–20 seconds later and we feed it through our algorithm to project seat availability.”

  • When headlines are subtweets: “Japanese Rail Operator Says Sorry For 'Inexcusable' Departure 25 Seconds Early”

  • Providence, RI is going to use some of that Volkswagen diesel emissions settlement money to lease an all-electric bus fleet.

  • The disused platform at Gloucester Road Tube Station, which has been out of service since the 1970s, will showcase ‘the most ambitious project the program has ever delivered,’ Art on the Underground curator Kiera Blakey told DesignCurial: Phillipson’s installation, ‘my name is lettie eggsyrub.’ Featuring 12-foot-tall egg sculptures and twelve video screens, the work addresses themes of fertility, overproduction, exploitation and fragility, using video-game-style graphics to ‘magnify eggs and avian body parts to monstrous proportions,’ the Art on the Underground website says.”

  • The potential benefits and many challenges of Paris’s free-transit-for-all study. And speaking of free public transit, that’s exactly what Estonia is rolling out.

  • The relationship between ride-hailing and mass transit becomes more formal, Florida and Detroit editions

  • Give me all your minimalist transit maps (DC Metro edition)

  • The Pulse is a kickass name for a BRT. Congrats, Richmond!

  • The headline “Metro will stay open later for Caps-Lightning Games 3 and 4 — thanks partly to … Qatar?” pretty much says it all about the current state of this country.

MTA Mention of the Week

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: Mike Egan

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.