September 21, 2018: Door in the Face

Over the last year, S/P reader Jeremy Moses has been irked by a small change in subway service. He’s one of those riders for whom every second counts. Moses lives off the 137th St stop on the 1 train and works downtown. When coming home from work, he’ll usually take the 2/3 to 96th St and makes the cross-platform transfer.

The change that irks him, which he’s noticed in the past year or so, is that, typically, the 1 no longer holds for passengers making the transfer. “Like, I’ll be on the 2, it will pull into 96th, the 1 will be across the platform with the doors open, and as we get out, the 1 will close its doors and pull away.”

For riders like Moses who derive satisfaction from a well-executed transfer, this change has been tantamount to subway torture. Adding insult to injury, “at least once a week,” he says, the next 1 train will be 8-10 minutes behind. In the meantime, several express trains come through and dump passengers like him onto the platform. “All it does is create incredible congestion on that next 1 train and makes everyone miserable.”

“So my ‘question’ is,” Moses summarizes, “WHY? WHY DO THEY DO THIS?” (An overwhelming proportion of reader questions I receive end in all-caps.)

Moses doesn’t know it, but he’s asking a fundamental question about subway operations, one that has vexed MTA management for more than a decade. That question is whether to provide even service or fast service. It cuts to the core of why the subway is struggling so mightily under record ridership, as well as why reform efforts are so difficult.

Let’s go back to May 2017. The Daily News published a report that got the ball rolling on a new subway narrative: “overcrowding” is not the cause of delays, but the result of them. The MTA is not a victim of its own historic ridership success as it had been claiming for years—and would continue to do so until Andy Byford came aboard—but is causing many delays through poor service management.

The May 2017 article focused on one particular disagreement among management at the time. Some wanted to focus on the “Wait Assessment” (WA) performance metric, a convoluted stat that attempts to measure how long people have to wait between trains. Others wanted to focus on on-time performance (OTP) or the percentage of trains that reach their final stop within five minutes of the scheduled time. It’s easy to understand why WA would seem more important. People don’t care about the last stop. They want a train to arrive shortly after they get to the platform.

So, management focused on reducing WA. Dispatchers were told to hold trains, slow trains, or skip stops to maintain even spacing. Holding trains at transfer points, like Moses’s experience with the 1, was part of that strategy.

But the MTA—and therefore all of us—found out the hard way this isn’t how trains work. Delays kept mounting. WA got worse. OTP tanked. Even spacing didn’t seem to accomplish anything. The reason is a simple one: it was a strategy predicated on slowing trains down.

Slowing trains down, regardless of the purpose, has a very predictable effect: it reduces the number of passengers the system can transport. At a time when ridership was increasing—particularly at the busiest times of day—this completed the double-whammy. More people, fewer trains.

Pegging subway performance to the wrong metric was not the cause of the problems, but a symptom of management’s fatal misunderstandings. Getting to the terminal on time is not a perfect measure for system performance, but it’s far more important than many realize. It means the train ran quickly along its entire route, can make its scheduled turnaround, and begin the next run on schedule. The more trains running quickly, the more capacity the system has.

This was the key point of the internal memo cited in the Daily News article: focusing on OTP would boost the subway’s overall performance. The memo’s killshot:

Adhering to existing subway timetables would eliminate most overcrowding.

Meaning, if the subway just tried to stick to the schedule, a lot of problems would be addressed.

This is all very counter-intuitive. Why should the railroad pay attention to the metric customers don’t care about?

Even though nobody consults the timetables to see if the 1 is arriving at 96th St precisely at 6:47 or whatever, the schedule itself accounts for those bigger picture things, like passenger demand, network capacity, fleet capacity, route design, merges/diverges, and crew work rules. (We can and should debate how well the schedule accounts for those things, but that is a separate matter.)

Of course, trains fall off the schedule due to incidents such as signal failures, switch problems, emergencies, etc. But roughly 40 percent of all delays are due to what NYCT calls “operating environment,” which is bureaucracy speak for, roughly, bad railroad management. Those are the delays Andy Byford has promised to cut by roughly 15 percent by year’s end.

That was a lot of setup to answer Moses’s question. When management prioritized WA, 1 trains held. Often, that meant Moses could make the cross-platform transfer. That was good for Moses, but bad for the big picture, because that 1 train probably got held at other stations, too, and then the trains behind it had to get held to manage those gaps. Everything got slowed down.

Of course, I’m not arguing that Moses should feel the breeze from those 1 doors slamming in his face and proclaim, “Thank you, blessed subway, for prioritizing OTP instead of WA!” His gripe, at least in the cases where there’s an 8-10 minute gap between 1 trains, is legitimate.

This is where subway management is more art than science. If a 1 train is 10 minutes or more behind another during rush hour, this would be Bad Service. In such cases, the schedule is already messed up, so some degree of gap management does make sense for precisely the reasons Moses describes. The dispatcher should be using his or her discretion to hold trains at certain transfer points until service becomes normal.

A good dispatcher with lots of experience knows how to make the best of bad service. A less experienced dispatcher may compound errors. And because rush hour ridership is so high, there’s less margin for error than ever.

Here we see a key benefit of modern signals such as communications-based train control (CBTC), where computers essentially run the trains. They take the guesswork out of gap management ensuring trains run both fast and evenly, a degree of coordination that is much more difficult for humans with limited information. Until that happens, those doors will keep slamming in Moses’s face.

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

  • So now that Nixon lost, what does this mean for the whole Fix The Subway thing? That is the subject of my Gothamist article.

  • 14th St and Avenue A will be the main staging site for the L train shutdown construction work, and residents are already upset. It’s going to be a long two years.

  • In 2019, the Hudson Yards development is finally going to start seeing some heavy commuting/tourist traffic. Can the city’s transit system handle it? I looked into it for Curbed NY as part of a larger package on whether rich people can build a neighborhood from scratch.

  • New Jersey Transit did a smart thing and decided to cut fares by 10 percent to/from Penn Station until January so that all the headlines focused on that instead of the fact that they’re gutting service to meet federally-mandated Positive Train Control deadlines.

  • Flood Rat made his/her triumphant debut this week during yet another subway waterfall event. It’s natural to view the subway waterfalls as another sign of our crumbling infrastructure, but I don’t think that’s the case. During torrential downpours, the city’s drainage system cannot accommodate the immediate surge of water, so it floods down into the subway. As long as we want to have subway entrances and ventilation in stations—and we do—then there is not really all that much to be done about it. This is much more of an issue about increasing the city’s ability to deal with heavy rain storms as they become more frequent thanks to climate change. Part of that solution is less pavement and more rain gardens/green areas. So, if you don’t want it to rain in the subway, start advocating for a lot more safe/green street designs.

  • The Riders Alliance found that the subway was delayed every morning rush hour in August except for one. The MTA called their study an “oversimplification,” but because the MTA has not yet released performance statistics past June, we can’t really say much more about how the subway did in August just yet. I agree it was a simple study, but the MTA and Riders Alliance are in agreement that the Byford Plan must be funded to fix the subway.

  • You may recall from past editions that the NYPD has not released subway fare evasion arrest data despite a city law that now requires them to do so. A city councilman and non-profit are now suing. The NYPD says they’re working on it, but don’t want to release any data that may “evade public safety” such as revealing police presence in certain stations, something nobody could ever possibly find out otherwise.

  • A month after the Staten Island bus redesign, the MTA is still working out the kinks. SI Advance sat down with all the stakeholders for a debrief of sorts, which I highly recommend reading because the bus network redesign is coming to the Bronx next and every borough within the next few years.
    Also noteworthy: SVP of Buses Darryl Irick said regarding blocked bus lanes, “What I am happy to report is that we've, sort of, hit a reboot button on our relationship with NYPD in terms of enforcement…They've been extremely responsive. I think there's been some growing pains and some opportunities in that group and they've realized that they need to do more... If they continue down this path I think it's another positive element that will benefit the entire city in the long haul.”

  • I appreciated the frankness the two academics who presented a Brooklyn bus network redesign had about their plan pissing some people off mostly by consolidating stops and routes, because any plan worth a damn to fix Brooklyn’s bus service—where ridership is down 20 percent since 2007!—ought to piss some people off. (And yes, they did present the plan to NYCT planners as well.) One of the co-authors explained the redesign in more detail here: “A political system based on citywide (or nationwide) ideological groups could find the will to build the network we’re proposing or something like it. Could a system based on local representation, treating retirees and small business owners as a vanguard class, deliver the same?”

  • Delays caused by people on the tracks appears to be slightly up this year, and the New York Times wrote about what can be done about it (short answer: platform doors, which are expensive, otherwise, not much). But please do keep this bit in mind: “The problem is hardly the biggest cause of subway delays. There were more than 72,000 delays in June, according to statistics from the M.T.A. About 1,500 trains were delayed by people on the tracks — about 2 percent of total delays. About 7 percent of weekday delays were caused by signal failures, and about 26 percent were blamed on planned maintenance work.”

  • Beware any politician who advocates for a fare freeze. As a rule of thumb, it means they don’t actually know what’s wrong with the system or how to fix it and just want to score some cheap political points.

  • The city’s BQX czar has left the job, yet another development that casts serious doubt on the project’s future. In related news, the city had a BQX czar.

  • John Surico may have been the only person to notice that the MTA announced Sept 8/9 would be the last weekend of suspended N/W service only to have them announce the next weekend would also have suspended N/W service.

  • “Among adults, the number of workers commuting more than 90 minutes each way grew by more than 15 percent from 2005 to 2016, a predictable outgrowth of America’s underinvestment in public transportation and over-investment in freeways, parking and strip malls. For 40 years, as politicians have told us to eat more vegetables and take the stairs instead of the elevator, they have presided over a country where daily exercise has become a luxury and eating well has become extortionate.

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

This week's estimate: June 2022. I feel like it’s time for an update soon, but I’ll probably wait until after the election.

Change log (the links are where I explain the change):

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:

  • 5 – No service between E 180 Street and 149 St-Grand Concourse

  • D – All service runs via A and F lines between 59 St-Columbus Circle and Kings Hwy

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

  • F – All service runs via Q and D lines in Manhattan and Brooklyn

  • G – No service between Nassau Av and Court Square

  • J – No service between Crescent St and Jamaica Center

  • N – multiple diversions

    • No service between Queensboro Plaza and Ditmars Blvd

    • All service runs via R line between Canal St and Atlantic Av

       

Late Nights:

  • 2 – No service between Chambers St and Atlantic Av

  • A – All service is express-only in Manhattan

  • D – All service runs via C and F lines in Manhattan and Brooklyn

  • E – No service between Briarwood and Jamaica Center

  • F – multiple diversions

    • All service runs via Q and D lines in Manhattan and Brooklyn

    • All service is local-only in Queens

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

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

David Roth’s Esteemed AirTrain Riders of the Week

“The Setting: the AirTrain, Tuesday afternoon. A family with four extremely rambunctious boys overseen by a stressed-out dad board the train. The kids are between I'd guess 10 and four. The eldest is wearing what I can only describe as clip-on skates—plastic rollerskate-style wheels that clamp onto the back of his sneakers. This is a terrible idea and the kid—I learned his name was Chase—did a terrible job with them. He's zooming around the car and proudly says to his dad ‘look what I can do’ right before spinning around on a pole and then directly into his youngest brother Jax, whom he just absolutely demolishes. This brings the third star into the equation: a man in a poncho who was muttering to himself and cried out ‘be careful’ when Chase pasted Jax. Then he said, to the dad, ‘hey, you're only a kid once’ and saluted Chase. ‘You're the king of the world! the poncho man said. Chase saluted him back. They are all sharing the award this week.”

Double Dog in a Bag

MTA Rules of Conduct Section 1050.9 Subsection (h) Paragraph 2: no person may bring any animal on or into any conveyance or facility unless enclosed in a container and carried in a manner which would not annoy other passengers.

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: Luis Gonzalez

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, freelance transportation reporter. Read on the web or view the archives at signalproblems.nyc.

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.