What's the point of better service if people don't notice?

A week ago, the MTA held yet another press conference to announce yet another month of improving subway service. Afterwards, reporters did what they do and went to subway stations to ask riders: do you notice?

Here, for example, is AMNY:

But many riders waiting for their trains on Monday said they are still waiting to feel that lift — especially with another fare hike coming at the end of the month.

“I would say definitely not, they’re wrong,” said Kyle McCarthy, 30 who lives upstate and commutes to his job as an elevator mechanic in the city. “And with proposed rate hikes coming up, I would expect them to be a lot better than 75 percent.”


“I haven’t noticed a change,” said Doug Ray, 61, of Fort George in upper Manhattan. “I have lived here for 40 years; it’s par for the course. The city has all kinds of frustrations and you just deal with it.”

At the press conference, Andy Byford had a different take. He said people regularly come up to him and are increasingly saying “you know what? It’s getting better.”

Rather than try to reconcile this discrepancy, I want to focus on a related question. Certainly some people notice things are getting better, but many appear not to. How much does it matter?

Not too long ago, I was on the train and thoroughly engrossed in a David Sedaris essay and guffawing like an idiot (this is not a literary review newsletter, but it was Six to Eight Black Men) so much so that I didn’t even notice, until I arrived late for a meeting, that my subway trip took about 15 minutes longer than normal. Contrast that to last week, reading a book I was not particularly into, when I was filled with angst when the dwell time at Franklin Ave stretched beyond one minute. Objectively, my Sedaris trip was a far worse subway performance. Subjectively, that freaking Franklin Ave dwell still irks me because I really had to pee.

And if we’re talking about meltdowns, or Major Incidents as the MTA calls them, then it comes down to our ability to coalesce anecdotal evidence—how often did my train screw up last month, last year, etc.?—into a narrative about subway service as a whole, a massive system which each individual rider only experiences a tiny fraction of. Every single rider’s perception of this issue, taken on its own, is fatally flawed as an overarching analysis. How many times have you gotten to work just fine only to hear a coworker bemoaning their nightmare commute, or vice versa?

This isn’t a queston people are good at intuiting. When you ask the average New Yorker something along the lines of “Do you think the subway is getting better?” in my experience they don’t think very hard before answering, and they typically will then start telling you stories about their recent subway trips, some of which have nothing to do with the actual service. This is akin to asking a random person, “How’s the economy doing?” They probably haven’t the slightest clue what the latest GDP or CPI figures are, but they know if they have a job or if they can pay their mortgage.

So, OK: MTA stats are giving us a clear picture, and most people don’t know what they’re talking about. Just ignore what the people say, right?

Well, what’s the point of better service if nobody notices?

I don’t pose this question to demoralize my MTA employee readers. But I do think it’s an important consideration: how do you win the trust of riders who are preternaturally predisposed to distrust you? How much improvement is enough to flip the narrative? What is the threshold where people start to notice? Is it a realistic one?

I don’t have the answers to those questions. My guess is riders don’t react positively when presented with these statistics because our rides have not gotten 15, 20, or 25 percent better as the various MTA statistics seemingly imply (they don’t actually say this, but numerical literacy is yet another weak point of the human mind; it would behoove the MTA, for many reasons, to start reporting train run times, which are both easy to understand—it took xx minutes to get from here to there is a metric that needs no explanation—and separate train performance from schedule adjustments). Nor do riders like fare hikes.

I was reminded of this issue later in the week when Assembly Member Rodneyse Bichotte, who represents a chunk of Flatbush with eight subway stops, ranted against congestion pricing:

Right now, I’m going to go with my constituents. Right now, we’re not in favor of congestion pricing in its form as it is today. But we are certainly for fixing the issue of our roads and streets being overpopulated and fixing the subway. Subways need to be fixed! We need to find ways, alternative funding. The “millionaire’s tax.” That’s one way we can go about funding our broken subway system. You have to understand, everyone, the outer boroughs have been ignored for a very long time. OK? Low-income people of color have been dealing with our public systems for many many years, 30, 40 years. Completely ignored. We on the state level have been funding the MTA with billions and billions of dollars in capital. Fares have been increased. In my district, we had workers’ jobs taken away. Subway station workers have been closed down. My constituents are asking, “If we are increasing the fares, where is it going? How come we’ve been yelling for years — 30, 40 years to fund our MTA — and nothing has been done?” And now, people are looking to tax people who are mostly vulnerable. So there’s a lot of issues. Again, we all want the same thing. We want to move New York City more efficiently and expediently, but not at the cost of our working families.”

Her general contention that her constituents will be harmed by congestion pricing is not supported by the facts. This prompted me to pose this question on Twitter:

To which non-voting MTA board member Norman Brown, who represents the Metro-North riders, replied:

Brown’s reply prompted me to re-visit Bichotte’s remarks. There’s something deeper going on here. She’s not really talking about congestion pricing. What she’s saying is she believes her constituents harbor deep, long-standing animosity towards the MTA, which is almost certainly true. That is the basis of her opposition.

Indeed, politicians “always have the MTA to blame,” as Brown put it, because their constituents are always more than happy to blame the MTA. Which then gives politicians implicit permission to abdicate their collective responsibility to oversee the transit authority, refuse to fund it in a consistent, predictable manner, and ensure they’re putting it in a position where it can succeed.

This is not to say the MTA is faultless for what ails it—if you’re thinking that’s my point, welcome, you must be new around here—but that any public authority needs oversight, proper governance, and political accountability to succeed. When the conversation begins and ends with some version of “the MTA sucks,” it perpetuates a vicious cycle, one we had the pleasure of witnessing within the span of a few days.

This has shifted my perspective on the issue a bit. I now realize this is far more of a battle for hearts and minds than I previously considered. The MTA’s challenge now, and perhaps its biggest one yet, is to get people to believe in it. In the end, this may prove an even harder task than running the trains on time.

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

  • The Automatic Train Supervision system (ATS), which monitors train locations on the numbered lines, went down twice this week, once on Thursday at 11 AM and again on Friday around 9 AM. The cause of both system failures were officially listed as “software events,” which, incidentally, was also the cause of my 2009 HP laptop being a piece of crap. How does NYCT troubleshoot when the computerized monitoring system for all the numbered lines go down?

    Yes, that’s right, the good ol’ fashioned power cycle, the reboot, the restart, turning it off and on again, the same thing your insufferable internet company customer service rep tells you when your internet isn’t working. Because at the end of the day, computers are computers, and whether it’s your cat video delivery machine or the one that facilitates getting millions of people around America’s biggest city (equally important tasks, if I do say so myself), it’s still just a computer.

  • Spotted in the committee materials for this month: 123 new buses going on the M15 and B44 SBS lines are being equipped with automatic bus lane camera enforcement technology! These cameras, installed on the front of buses, can automatically issue tickets to vehicles illegally parked in bus lanes.

    This is potentially big news for faster buses, although I’m puzzled by the fact that this is apparently yet another “pilot program,” even though NYCT tested this very technology from the exact same company in 2010 during another pilot program. The MTA doesn’t really explain why this needs to be a pilot program other than to say they have to “evaluate the system’s ability to identify violations and improve bus speeds,” but the 2010 pilot already evaluated whether the technology worked (it does) and even if it doesn’t improve bus speeds (it does) who cares? Ticketing vehicles for violating the law is an important civic function in its own right.

  • The really insidious part of Cuomo’s involvement with the MTA, as Paul Berger illustrated in his WSJ article, is that the Governor can argue he’s just asking for common-sense improvements or better coordination between departments when in actuality he’s completely changing the dynamic of who makes decisions and how.

  • As Second Ave Sagas pointed out, 63 percent of NYC voters disapprove of Cuomo’s handling of the MTA and 53 percent statewide disapprove (source). Yet, as we all know, Cuomo suffered precisely zero repercussions at the ballot box. As far as I see it, this is the crux of Corey Johnson’s municipal takeover plan: would this dynamic significantly change if it was the mayor instead? To put it another way, would voters punish the mayor for his/her handling of transportation issues any more than the governor? The answer isn’t obviously yes, since a lot of issues influence voters aside from transportation.

  • Transportation analyst Charles Komanoff estimated that equipping lines with CBTC that don’t currently have them will lead to approximately 20 percent quicker trips.

  • There’s a fine line between building coalitions and horse-trading. I’m afraid meeting with outer-borough electeds to discuss, among other things, subsidized for-hire vehicle rides in exchange for their congestion pricing support is on the wrong side of that line, but reduced fares for riding the commuter rails within the five boroughs is firmly within the “building coalitions” territory.

  • The Transit Museum in Grand Central is running a photo exhibition on the subway cars that get dumped into the ocean to become artificial reefs through June.

  • Should serial sex offenders be banned from the subway? That is the question posed by a new city council bill. It seems to me this is not the best way to address a very real problem. Most sexual offenses committed on the subway are misdemeanors, so offenders spend very little time, if any, in jail. The more sensible policy here is to make repeat offenses felonies with jail time, which also doesn’t pose the burdensome enforcement question of just how, exactly, you ban specific people from the subway system. Also, I simply don’t like the precedent of banning a certain group of people from mass transportation. Anyways, the bill was proposed by Chaim Deutsch, a city councilman who at a recent hearing admitted he almost exclusively drives.

  • New York City spent $44 million on operating subsidies for NYC Ferry in 2018 and a total of $582 million on the service to date, according to The Post, all to provide a service that transports fewer riders every day than about a dozen individual bus routes.

    To put this annual operating subsidy in perspective, in 2014 the MTA increased L train service by 53 round trips per weekend and three round trips per weekday, for a total annual cost of $1.7 million. This is very back-of-the-envelope stuff—the L is a short line so a round-trip costs less in electricity, labor costs, and car maintenance—but at that rate, $44 million could pay for 91,520 extra subway round trips per year, or 1,760 per week. Even half that number would still amount to a nice service boost in service, particularly for late nights and weekends when scheduled headways leave a lot to be desired.

  • Remember when Andy Byford said he would be hiring a third-party independent consultant outside of New York politics to review the new L tunnel plan, and then got shuffled off the L tunnel project, and then the independent consultant to be chosen by Byford became an “independent” consultant chosen by the MTA board from a list provided by MTA management, and the “independent” consultant wasn’t going to review the merits of the project but just monitor the work going on? Well, the MTA has finally chosen who that consultant is (JMT of New York, Inc.) and will be paying them $1.2 million for the work nobody seems to particularly want that badly anymore. Some board members are pretty pissed off that the scope of this independent consultant has been so significantly reduced. From the WSJ:

    Andrew Saul, an MTA board member who represents Westchester County, said in an interview that the consultant’s role is “a total waste of money, frankly, and a total waste of time.”

    This, ladies and gentlemen, is the MTA’s problems in a nutshell: spending $1.2 million on something three degrees separated from it original purpose and nobody seems to want anymore just because they said they were going to do it.

Weekly Anti-Hudson Yards Link

In short, the Vessel is a vessel of its time, and its sheer shittiness as architecture and urbanism, itself a small part of the bigger tyranny of capitalism, at least invites us to dream of something, anything, better than this.

-Kate Wagner in The Baffler

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

As always, head over to Subway Weekender for all your unofficial weekend and late night service advisory breakdowns

This Time Last Year

One of my favorite newsletters, Oversharing, has a section called This Time Last Year. It’s a great idea. I’m stealing it.

I didn’t plan it this way, but I wrote about another vicious cycle this time last year, specifically about buses:

The idea that buses aren’t “sexy” is so internalized in American culture that even advocates for expanded bus service like Levine recite it. The conventional wisdom that buses aren’t “sexy” is a self-defeating cycle, in which perception begets reality which reinforces the perception. Nobody appears willing to break the vicious circle. The fixes aren’t complicated or expensive, particularly by NYC transit standards, but they require determination, political will, and a holistic vision, all traits NYC’s bus landscape is horribly lacking.

The major news items were:

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: Corey Hartmann

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. Read on the web or view the archives at signalproblems.nyc.

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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.