The Beauty and the Beast

Last spring, I sat across from a man on an old train car where some of the seats still face forward. Winter refused to end until it suddenly did, so everyone on the train was stubbornly refusing to dress appropriately for the temperature in protest. The older man across from me sported a beaten fedora that settled wearily onto his head in a way that it never could on, say, the head of a mid-20s brand manager sitting with his legs crossed nursing an Old Fashioned in a Williamsburg loft. The man clutched a brown satchel in his lap so tightly I could see his fingers turning white. As we made our journey I imagined a whole backstory for him and his satchel, which I might have turned into a novel if I was a completely different person.

What I remember most about this man is that his socks and scarf perfectly matched the old subway car’s seats, that pale yellow and faded orange that is one crucial shade away from nauseating. His ears, bright red from the frigid temperatures, completed the paint sample strip color scheme. In that old subway car, looking more like a character from an imaginary novel taking place entirely inside my head, I wondered, for the briefest of seconds, if he was real.

I recently stumbled on an article photographer Bruce Davidson wrote for the New York Review of Books upon the publication of the 25th anniversary edition of his collection of 1980 subway photos. The subway is one of the most photogenic places in the world and, to my mind, one of the great spaces for creative energy, which Bruce Davidson found out long before I did. If you’ve seen an awesome photo of the subway from the 1980s, it’s probably his. From the article, which was published in 2011, I was especially taken by his description of the blanket graffiti on the subway walls:

I began to imagine that these signatures surrounding the passengers were ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Every now and then, when I was looking at one of these cryptic messages, someone would come and sit in front of it, and I would feel as if the message had been decoded.

In a completely different but spiritually linked way, this reminded me of how I felt about the old man who matched the seats. Without him, it was just an old subway car. But with him, the scene was decoded. I was on my way to spinning a tale about what was inside that satchel and why he was holding onto it so tightly. The matching socks and scarf confirmed to me that I could let my my mind go with this story, because he was meant to be sitting right there in front of me at that very moment.

Or maybe I’m just nuts. Either way, I find the subway one of the easiest places to let my imagination run wild. It often results in me staring into the middle distance, which is naturally also the space another person is occupying, resulting in an awkward ocular encounter. Whatever, it happens to everyone, and I much prefer it to staring at a phone, pretending nobody else exists. Even my imaginary story about the old man with a satchel is more real than that.

“I see the subway as a metaphor for the world in which we live today,” Davidson wrote. It’s true regardless of when “today” is and is one of the reasons the subway is such a powerful muse. More, and everything, from Davidson:

As our being is exposed, we confront our mortality, contemplate our destiny, and experience both the beauty and the beast. From the moving train above ground, we see glimpses of the city, and as the trains move into the tunnels, sterile fluorescent light reaches into the stony gloom, and we, trapped inside, all hang on together.

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

  • In non-subway news, I’m over at Gothamist writing about the one year anniversary of the Hudson River Greenway attack and how the city ought to take a more careful, studied, and thoughtful approach to making pedestrian areas safer. Or, as one security expert put it, “all bollards can do is force any would-be driver to go somewhere else to run over people.”

  • The L train shutdown will begin on April 27, 2019, a date first reported by Gothamist, which is 176 days away. Replacement shuttle buses and ferries will start operating a week prior. In addition, there will be a bunch of weekend closures in February and March to prepare for the shutdown. The same day the date was announced, the M line was heavily delayed in both directions because of signal problems on the Myrtle Viaduct branch they just replaced in April, which is as good a time as any to remind everyone that there will be days during the L shutdown where the J, M, or G will be severely delayed and North Brooklyn will basically shut down.

  • The MTA ditched a proposal to save $7.1 million annually by getting rid of some subway booths and station agents, ostensibly because of “safety” concerns but really because the union was mad (fun time to remind everyone that crime in the subway is absurdly, fantastically low; there have been 1,780 felonies in the subway this year through September [most of which were grand larcenies], for an average of 6.5 per day in a system that carries about six million people per day). They have also decided not to cut elevator operators at five uptown stations or overnight cleaning crews at some stations. All these cuts were recently announced and then promptly reversed.
    Anyways, the number keeps changing, but the MTA has to implement something like $300 million in savings next year alone to hit a balanced budget even with a fare hike, which is looking increasingly likely to involve service cuts—hell, Lhota even mentioned service cuts in a special address before the last board meeting—only because the MTA keeps walking back every other idea to save cash at the slightest opposition. One way or another, the MTA is going to have to make tough financial decisions eventually. But it seems intent on delaying them as long as possible, or at least until after a certain election is over.

  • Longtime MTA planner William Wheeler died over the weekend. Here’s the NYT obit. In 2013 he told Streetsblog “The only thing more important than owning a gun in the United States is having a parking spot.” Also from the NYT: “His forecasts were usually correct — even if the board members he reported to didn’t always follow his advice, and even if the city and state officials who appointed the board failed to finance his recommendations.” As good of a one-sentence summary for what ails the MTA as any.

  • In what will surely come as a total shock to everyone, no company stepped up to accept Cuomo’s invitation to name a dilapidated, cramped, dirty, and often leaky Manhattan subway station after their company for $400,000 a year. If you’d like to read more on why selling naming rights to mass transit stations isn’t as easy as it sounds, here’s a smart thread. However, my standing offer of $20 to rename it Chambers St—FixTheSubway stands.

  • Kawasaki Heavy Industries, which just landed a $1.4 billion subway car order with options for double that, is outlining plans to restructure its rail business and may exit foreign (read: non-Japanese) car construction altogether.

  • Good report by Jose Martinez on the new vacuum trains that will help reduce delays. It also answers the question I’m sure every New Yorker has: will the vacuum trains suck up the rats?

  • A lot to think about in Alon Levy’s post about the MTA and outside advice.

  • The MTA has found 191 malfunctioning signal timers that force train operators to go much slower than the posted speed limit. They plan to fix those, and also look at places where the speed limit can be raised, such as between Lafayette and Hoyt-Schermerhorn on the A/C.

  • "I wanted to show my kid that doing the right thing is what you have to do, even if it means personal sacrifice," says the guy who blew the whistle on NJ Transit and is now broke and out of a job even though everything he said was substantiated by a $1.3 million audit of the agency.

  • The first published guide to the Interborough Rapid Transit line can be yours for a mere $12,000, and a 1909 map showing every subway, elevated train, bridge, and tunnel for $25,000.

  • I laughed:

    Aaron Feis@AaronFeisMan, time zones, amirite? #MTA CC: @ndhapple

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

This week's estimate: June 2022

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:

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

  • A C – Uptown service runs via F line between Jay St and W 4 Street

  • E – No service between Briarwood and Jamaica Center

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

  • F – multiple diversions

    • No service between Church Av and Coney Island

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

  • G – No service between Nassau Av and Court Square

  • N R – Brooklyn-bound service runs via Manhattan Bridge, express between Atlantic Av and 36 St/4 Av

  • R – No overnight service between Atlantic Av and Whitehall St

Late Nights:

  • 1 – No service between Dyckman St and 137 St-City College

  • 6 – Split service at 125 Street

  • A – Uptown service is express-only between Canal St and 125 Street

  • E – multiple diversions

    • All service runs via F line between Roosevelt Av and 2 Avenue

    • Manhattan-bound service is express-only in Queens

  • L – No service between Broadway Junction and 8 Avenue

  • Q – multiple diversions

    • Uptown service runs via R line between DeKalb Av and Canal St

    • Reduced service between Atlantic Av and Coney Island

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

  • London is making half of its historic center car-free.

  • Don’t look now, but Boston seems to be one of the few big American cities thinking seriously about how to get buses moving again.

  • Speaking of Boston, meet the young transit planners helping to improve the MBTA.

  • Stop trying to reinvent the bus. The bus is the best version of the bus.

  • Here’s a really well-done feature from the Baltimore Sun about ongoing plans to build a Maglev train from DC to Baltimore. The reporter quotes a whole bunch of people trying to sell the project as a commuting option for Baltimore to DC. This doesn’t scan. Ticket prices will be $50-$100 per trip, which is not a commuter rate. Even if they’re able to adopt some scheme to lower rates for commuters, Baltimore to DC is only 35 miles, or about the same distance as Stamford, CT to Grand Central Terminal, a rail trip tens of thousands of commuters make every day in under 45 minutes. With Baltimore’s rents and home prices so much lower than DC’s—plus, it’s a hugely underrated city in general—a much smaller investment in more frequent MARC commuter rail service could accomplish this goal for a fraction of the cost and in much less time. Yet another excellent example of the false prophet of innovation.

  • Staying in the capitol region, WMATA is being forced to take some quasi-reasonable measures to increase ridership after being thoroughly embarrassed/shamed into doing so by the Washington Post.

Subway Eating Story

Last week I put out a call for a subway eating story, and Samantha A. delivered big time:

It was a summer night around 9 PM when I hopped on the First Ave L and headed home towards Brooklyn. I was only on the train for one stop, as I was getting off at Bedford Ave. When I stepped foot on the L train, I noticed that everyone was watching (and recording) a man who was eating ice cream. I am normally not fascinated by one who eats on the train, but this man was something else. He ate an entire a carton of ice cream within five minutes. How did he do it? He used the carton lid as his spoon to scoop the ice cream from the big bucket and put it in his mouth. Within just *ONE* subway station, he had managed to devour the entire box of ice cream. Everyone was impressed! But what was really fascinating was the fact that he was just in his own world. He didn't think anything of it. I gotta say, I have respect for that!

I asked Samantha if this magical person was keeping it neat:

Amazingly not messy! He had a bag of groceries and it looked like he just whipped the carton out from the big brown bag on the subway floor.

But yes, he was getting it all. Towards the end, he held up the big cartoon to his face and slurped up the ice cream that had melted. 

If you have a subway eating story (that doesn’t involve someone making a mess because we don’t want to encourage that type of behavior) send it along to signalproblems@substack.com.

David Roth’s Esteemed Subway Rider of the Week

On the way back uptown on the Q I saw a baby who was dressed as Sleepy of the Seven Dwarfs, in a stroller, sleeping. He was doing that sleeping baby thing where he was periodically waving his fists around in his sleep. His mom was taking pictures of him. Everything that I hoped for from a Halloween on the trains.

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 signalproblems@substack.com.

Photo credit: Jordan Bleckner

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 signalproblems@substack.com. I’d love to hear from you. As someone on a stalled Q train once told me, we’re all in this together.