The Follow Through

Why Andy Byford meant more to New York than just running the trains well.

I decided to hold off on writing about Byford’s departure until I finished a related feature I’ve been working on. That feature, which got published on Monday, is about why the U.S. sucks at building public transit. I suspect it will be of interest to you all.

That question is something I have been thinking about for a very long time, at least since I started writing about public transit almost three years ago. It’s also one I have been researching intensely, mostly outside of work, for a long time. The catalyst was my appearance on Chris Hayes’s podcast, when we discussed the importance of not only agreeing that robust public services are worthwhile endeavors, not merely funding them adequately, but also executing them well. And that comes down to people. As transit historian George Smerk wrote in his indispensable history on American mass transportation, laws are a bit like a golf swing, in that they’re only as good as the follow through. Words on a piece of paper don’t make a difference. People do.

New York’s golf game, to continue the metaphor, has been inconsistent at best. Lots of two-under-pars followed by double bogeys type stuff. The steady decline through the 1970s and trough of the early 1980s was followed by the relative highs of the 2000s and early 2010s. The rapid decline of the mid-2010s was followed by the subsequent rapid improvement of 2018.

But there was hope, cautious hope, that this unpleasant cycle could be disrupted. Because words on paper don’t make a difference. People do. And suddenly, in 2018, there was a person who believed, very publicly, that he could make a difference.

From Andy Byford’s first days, it was perhaps not clear he would make a difference when up against the formidable forces of the MTA bureaucracy and a notoriously meddling governor. But it was very obvious he was different. In his second month, he proclaimed “overcrowding” delays—an excuse the MTA had manufactured to blame subway riders for the deteriorating service and cast the agency itself as, in their favorite phrase, “a victim of our own success”—erroneous, something transit observers had been arguing for years to no avail. It took Byford less than 60 days to cease the years-long gaslighting and do what no one else at the MTA seemingly had the courage to do: tell the truth.

Other New Yorkers who do not watch MTA board meetings experienced Byford’s competence at their own pace. The New Yorker profile helped. Over time, as more people shared stories of running into Byford at bars and restaurants when he invited people to sit down and chat or graciously took the time to talk about train service with anyone who asked, he had something even better than follow through. He had passion for his work, for this city, a passion that matched the passion a lot of us have for it, too.

Passion is one thing, results are another. And Byford delivered them. Subway service undeniably improved during his time. Some of that was due to schedule adjustments that gave trains more running time. The $836 million Subway Action Plan may have helped. I have had many an honest debate with various folks about to what degree each of those factors is responsible for the subway’s improvements. I believe Byford deserves the most credit of any single person for those real accomplishments.

And that doesn’t take into account the equally obvious improvements in other areas like customer service. Back when I first started reporting on the subway, I could identify delays via Twitter half an hour before official service advisories went out. That never happens anymore. Sarah Meyer, the chief customer officer at Transit, led this renaissance. But it’s no accident this happened under Byford, who made customer service his priority from day one.

All of this is to say, Andy Byford was damned competent, and he empowered competent people to do competent things. Architecture critic Alexandra Lange brought to my attention a phrase that perfectly encapsulates Byford’s time in Transit.

Andy Byford was competence porn.

As Michaella A. Thornton explains, “competence porn”—a phrase coined by TV critic John Rogers— “addresses the innate pleasure some of us derive from watching truly exceptional people do things impressively.” There’s a whole rabbit hole to go down here that as far as I can tell involves a lot of romance novels and gender bias, but the upshot is a certain type of person really enjoys being exposed to people who are damn good at their jobs. These tend to be people who are obsessed with efficiency and accomplishment. This is right in the public transit wheelhouse; by this definition, trains themselves are a kind of competence porn.

Further, competence porn is especially potent when coming from the exact opposite (incompetence torture?). The plumber who fixes your broken sink in five minutes seems extra impressive when the previous guy worked for two hours, charged you $500, and only made it worse. And boy, does New York have a lot of bad plumbers.

Along these lines, I cannot disentangle Byford’s reputation from the era in which he operated. When it comes to elected officials or those appointed by them, we’re not exactly surrounded by competence these days.

This is, in large part, why I think Byford was so widely admired. He was, above all else, good at his job and carried himself with dignity at a time where it is exceedingly rare for high profile public servants to do so. I’ve talked to dozens of people who worked closely with him, and the picture they paint is the same. He didn’t lie. He didn’t shout at people. He treated everyone, and especially his subordinates, with respect. He tried to get people to care about their jobs, and about this city’s transit system, as much as he did. And he tried to convey the message that they are public servants and that means something, something important, and it’s not only permissible to believe things can be better but it is dignified to dedicate yourself to achieving that. It’s OK to be bothered by trash in the subway, but only if you pick it up. It’s normal to want to fix what’s broken, but only if you get to work fixing it. It’s good to care about something other than yourself, but not to blame others for mistakes. It’s the stuff you are taught in kindergarten but that’s forgotten sometime around your second political campaign.

I’ll miss the Byford era for many reasons. Partly, it’s because it largely overlapped with my time reporting on the MTA, so I will remember it fondly out of nostalgia for a beat I enjoyed. But more importantly, it was the first time I experienced something in a public servant I’ve never experienced before: trust.

Trust is something sorely lacking from our city’s transportation landscape, in both small and profound ways. For example, NYCT put out a plan to redesign the Queens bus network that seemingly everyone hates (even though it’s not that bad). When I talk to my MTA sources on this, they lament that they held dozens of meetings in the Queens community and with politicians before putting out the redesign and didn’t hear a peep about any concerns then. A refrain I heard a lot was that politicians sent some underling who spent the entire meeting on their phones. Only once constituents started complaining did the MTA lose all support from local officials.

But when I ask my sources in Queens politician offices, they say the MTA never had any intention of listening to them. They showed up with their own plan and that was going to be that. They felt like props to demonstrate “community input” when, to their minds, the MTA never had any intention of listening.

What was sorely missing from this process was trust, a good faith effort on both sides to take the other at face value. From what I’ve heard, both sides went in skeptical of the other’s intentions and the end result became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Unfortunately, Queens bus riders will suffer as a result.

In his two years, Byford did more than anyone else has in decades to restore some semblance of trust in the MTA. As the Queens bus redesign demonstrates, there’s still a tremendous gap, and his departure will likely widen it. But he went to hundreds of community meetings about Fast Forward, the L shutdown and bus redesigns. When he was there, he said “hold me accountable.” He didn’t say “the board runs NYCT, not me.” He didn’t say “we’re a victim of our own success.” He said “hold me accountable.” That goes a long way towards building trust.

In my feature on why the U.S. sucks at building public transit, one of the many causes I identified is that “People don't trust the government to build things so they vote against projects under the assumption they will be executed poorly and waste taxpayer dollars.” New York gives more money to its public transit than any city because we rely on it, but in general New Yorkers do not trust the MTA and feel, justifiably, much of that money is wasted. It’s impossible to say how much money would have been in the latest $54 billion capital plan if Andy Byford wasn’t championing it, but he did an awful lot of the ground work selling it.

We didn’t trust Byford because he told us to. We trusted him because, over time, he earned it. I’d like to think this is the only way to get it, but there’s ample evidence that’s not true. Lots of people become trusted for bad reasons, and do horrible things with that misplaced trust. It happens so often over and over again it’s almost enough to make you wonder if no public servant deserves it. Especially when the ones who actually deserve it have to quit in order to keep their word.

Back when I first started reporting on this stuff, before Byford was in the picture, someone asked me a hypothetical: what if some world expert ran the MTA? Would it get better? Or is this shit unfixable? A corollary, which I was also asked from time to time, was: how much of the MTA’s problems are down to leadership ? Or is it the bureaucracy itself? I wish I could remember how I answered, it was probably dumb because I didn’t know what I was talking about then. But I suppose it doesn’t matter what I said, because we know it now, for better or for worse.

I’m no longer on the beat in the same way I was, but I’m still watching, because I still live in this city. And I still think it’s normal and even good to want to fix what’s broken. I still believe things can be better. Now, it’s up to Byford’s successors to start the cycle and earn our trust over again. It’s on them to fix what’s broken. And that doesn’t happen from behind a podium, no matter what the placard hanging in front of it says. Words on paper don’t make a difference. People do.