Delays in New York City are getting worse, and the M.T.A. has rolled out several initiatives to fix things. Will it work?
Opened in 1904, covering 236 miles of routes, praised in songs like “Take the A Train” and movies from “The Money Train” to “The Warriors,” the New York Subway is legendary, huge and iconic.
But right now, it’s a tarnished icon as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (M.T.A.) struggles to fix problems ranging from overcrowding to signal malfunctions—all of which are causing train delays and passenger frustration.
A recent New York Times article describes the M.T.A.’s recently released plan to address the worst of the problems, starting with the 8th Avenue line– which experiences line car equipment breakdowns about 25 times per month, that last 19 minutes on average, and cause delays not only to the affected train but to all trains along the line.
So, what’s their plan?
It starts at the top, literally, with reorganizing the leadership structure so that the position of Chairman (big picture leader) and CEO (day-to-day management) are separate.
There will be new subway cars and improved maintenance on old cars.
Improving tracks and signals, especially via preventative maintenance that targets signals most prone to failure, is a key point. As a safety measure, the New York subway was built to be “fail-safe.” That means when a sensor is tripped all lights go red, everything stops and delays occur. The M.T.A. also will also increase the number of rapid response teams available.
Likewise, the authority plans to have EMT’s at five specific stations to speed the response to sick passengers (who are often hard to locate) and coordinate better with the NYPD so that when issues that require police intervention arise, police arrive faster.
Finally, the plan calls for streamlining passenger loading and unloading and dealing with system bottlenecks.
This all looks good on paper, but will it work?
Fixing and maintaining the New York subway is always a balancing act of meeting short-term needs, addressing long-term needs and dealing with budget constraints.
Unfortunately, the M.T.A. has a long history of money running out before the subway problems are fixed.
According to the Times the 1970’s illustrate the multi-level problem the best. In May, an article published by the paper begins, “Nearly four decades ago, New York City’s subway system hit rock bottom: track fires, graffiti-covered cars and crime came to symbolize that era.
An intervention was required. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, under the leadership of Richard Ravitch, persuaded the governor and legislative leaders to allow the agency to issue bonds — clearing the way for a $7.2 billion, five-year capital program.”
The money wasn’t enough, certainly not enough to address all the bridges, tunnels, commuter railroads, bus systems and the specific-to-the-subway problems that the M.T.A. oversees.
New train cars were added, and much of the fleet refurbished, but long-term goals, including the Second Avenue subway line project, were abandoned.
It was only in January of this year that the first section of the proposed Second Avenue line opened.
Given that it took 40 years to achieve one goal, and that funding continues to be limited, what are the chances that the goal of fewer delays and easier commutes will be met?
It’s hard to say. There are a few things in play that indicate the M.T.A. will step up. First, the press and the public outcry, including on social media. The M.T.A. has already responded with educational campaigns (for instance, don’t pull the emergency break for a sick passenger) and that alone- public outreach- is a step.
The outcry has also resulted in the formation of an advocacy group, the Riders Alliance, which can organize outcry into action.
Finally, there is a plan in place. As the saying goes, the first step to solving a problem is to admit you have one. The M.T.A. has clearly admitted there’s a problem and the plan to address it is, at least, a good first step.
A lesser-known holiday tradition for New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) is to put vintage subway cars–usually on display at the New York Transit Museum–back in service, but for a limited time only. The “Shoppers Special” operates annually on Sundays between Thanksgiving and Christmas, departing several times a day from the 2nd Ave. station and making local stops along the 6th Ave F/M line to Queens Plaza.
This special 8-car train consists of R1/9 “City Cars” that ferried passengers throughout the city from 1930 to 1970, along unrecognizable lines like the AA, BB, CC, EE, and H. As the MTA puts it, “The jazz composer Billy Strayhorn would have taken a City Car to Sugar Hill when Duke Ellington told him to ‘Take the A Train.’”
This special subway ride will transport you in more ways than one: the train cars are decorated with era-appropriate ads, as documented here by Business Insider. And the cars themselves are a nostalgia trip, with “rattan seats, ceiling fans, incandescent bulb lighting, drop-sash style windows, and roll signs” (MTA). Swinging metal hanging “straps” help brace standing riders: the swinging lets you sway more with the motion of the train than the parallel grab bars in their modern counterparts. The light bulbs overhead consistently flicker off–for one thrilling moment–between stations. The antiquated emergency brakes, relatively low ceiling fans, and insistently closing doors all mark a charming but less foolproof era.
To ensure subway riders don’t play a game of chicken with the subway doors–as current cars allow and present-day commuters routinely test–MTA operators are stationed in every car of the Shoppers Special. The ceiling fans and air vents provide excellent ventilation and a whoosh feeling of truly traveling that is missing from the current enclosed subway cars. That may be in part because the doors between cars are left open on the Shoppers Special, to encourage riders to cross over and continue their journey between eras.
While most of the train cars are from the 1930s and 1940s, one car looks noticeably different: because it was designed to look noticeably different. Car No. 1575 looks more contemporary because it was a prototype, meant to replace the older cars that compose the rest of the throwback train. It’s still a noticeable departure from the current subway car, however.
Commissioned for the Independent Subway System (IND) and operating for over 40 years, the R1/9 cars that comprise ⅞ of the Shoppers Special are the basis for the current subway car R160 model, and even the upcoming R211 cars. The durability of the R1/9 model cars is evident in their long run, and in the smooth ride enjoyed by modern straphangers: a mixed bag comprised of surprised New Yorkers, New Yorkers in the know (some even dressed for the occasion in period wear), tourists, and many delighted children.
The popularity of this yearly tradition demonstrates the public’s avid interest in an older New York, documented by projects like the Tenement Museum. The New York Transit Museum gives a good glimpse of what commuting might have looked like in the early or mid-20th century. This photo tour by Business Insider serves as a quick introduction. Articles by Smithsonian and Untapped Cities describe additional hidden wonders and subway secrets:
- abandoned subway stations/platforms/levels
- the underwater graves of subway cars
- a long-running subway beauty pageant
- a pneumatic subway car that stretched one city block
- armored Money Trains that carried subway fare money to a secret room in Brooklyn for counting
- a fake Brooklyn townhouse that functions as a ventilation shaft and emergency subway exit
- the Signal Learning Center at 14th Street station
- a small, subway-accessible NYPL branch
- the entrance to the historic Knickerbocker Hotel in Times Square station
- the Masstransiscope art installation at the abandoned Myrtle Ave subway station
- a bedecked private subway car–every commuter’s fever dream
Interest in such an integral New York institution will never abate. So the next time you’re riding the subway, consider that your car may host a nostalgia ride 50 years from now…
At over a century old and over maximum capacity, The New York subway system is in desperate need of an upgrade. Each weekday, over 5 million riders enter train cars built to withstand approximately 70,000 daily riders, and rely on them to safely and swiftly reach their destination. While MTA-related issues seem to pile up with each passing year, renovations require a great deal of both money and time, not to mention the patience of anxious commuters.
So how does the MTA keep operating trains and tracks safe and functional when it comes time to repair others? It’s a complicated story that has to do with money, population growth and aging infrastructure, among other factors.
Here’s what you need to know about how the MTA plans and executes their major renovations, how long they might take, and what to expect for the future of the NYC subway.
The MTA is still fixing and fortifying, years after Sandy.
To understand how the MTA works, it makes sense to look at its past and ongoing projects. When Hurricane Sandy slammed the east coast in 2012, much of the city was spared — but the subways have ceased to be the same. The ensuing “Fix & Fortify” campaign by the MTA is still ongoing. It’s next focus will be on repairing the L train, a highly trafficked cross-borough line.
This project won’t begin until 2019, but when it does, managing the commute to or from the Williamsburg and Bushwick areas won’t be easy. The MTA predicts either a complete 18-month shutdown or three years of limited service in order to repair the line’s Canarsie tube, which was severely compromised by flooding.
Sandy repairs are typically accomplished on weekends and nights to minimally impact highly-congested workday commutes. Tunnels like the Clark, Rutgers and Cranberry tubes are among those subjected to weekend repairs, to the inconvenience of F, 2 and 3 train riders.
Record numbers of riders mean more repairs and more delays.
Even before Sandy, the MTA’s struggles were real — and challenging enough that the MTA has been compared to Sisyphus in his quest to roll a boulder uphill. Increased crowding and aging infrastructure means more repairs and more funding is necessary just to keep up with average wear and tear. The prospect of future hurricanes only ramp up the gravity of the situation.
Unfortunately, the MTA isn’t in any position to accomplish these fixes immediately. This is in part thanks to record ridership, which has risen to nearly 6 million people a day up from about 4 million in the 1990s. This crowding, in turn, has lead to a swelling delays, which have quadrupled since 2012 to about 20,000 a year.
Thanks to debt and budget constraint, the MTA is in financial straits.
Another obstacle preventing the MTA from immediately acting on repairs is their delicate financial situation. The city and the state split the cost of the MTA’s budget, the rest of which is made up by riders’ fare prices, but Albany has not been eager to help fund the agency. Only when the MTA uses up its resources from the prior round of funding will the state’s contribution be “anticipated” rather than “mandated,” meaning necessary funding could be delayed even further.
Next, let’s not forget the MTA’s massive debt of $34 billion, which is greater than 30 of the world’s countries combined. In the 1980s, the MTA began borrowing from banks to fund luxury projects; now, raised rider-fares are paying back the extravagant ideas of the past. This model is especially unsustainable considering revenues are rising 1.5 percent each year, while costs rise 5.5 percent, according to NY Mag.
It could take 50 years to fix all subway’s issues.
Between debt, hurricanes, and overcrowding, the MTA certainly has its work cut out. And while crucial repairs will need to be made, some say we’re likely to be half a century before we see it all completed. That’s according to the Citizens Budget Commissions, which estimates that stairs, platforms and pillars in 280 of New York City’s 668 stations won’t be fully fixed until 2067.
52 years is two-thirds the human lifespan — far too long to wait for necessary updates to keep riders safe and the subway running smoothly. Still, gradual repairs are certainly better than none at all.
The MTA is still prioritizing tech and expansion projects.
Repairs are necessary on the day-to-day, but above all, the MTA has the future in mind. While it’s easy for daily riders to assume the MTA should focus solely on repairs, it’s critical to think ahead. As the city’s population flourishes and ridership grows, expansion will be needed just to free up space and stop the strain on current lines.
“At a time when growing ridership is leading to crowding and delays, we must pursue expansion projects,” MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz told the NY Daily News.
Recent expansion projects have been less than fruitful so far, with projects like the Second Avenue expansion delayed indefinably.
Technology projects are moving along much better, with all underground stations set to be fully equipped with WiFi by 2017. Subways will soon begin accepting contactless payments, too, and new countdown clocks and subway cars will also be added gradually. The clocks we can expect on lettered lines in 2018, and the cars we may see replacing the old C, J and Z trains by 2022.
Creative solutions for consideration
With public services that New York’s residents and economy rely on, cutting costs and downsizing in a fashion similar to a business would only make matters worst. Revenue and a large labor force is vital to completing projects, but continuing to raise fare prices is not exactly fair to cash-strapped commuters.
The Daily Dot has suggested that the MTA could benefit from an ultra-useful train-tracking app with a one-time fee for users, as well as WiFi and solar panels for diversified revenue streams. NY Mag suggests cutting bloated administrative costs, privatizing buses, selling and leasing MTA-owned real estate, and raising toll prices for drivers. The Move NY plan in particular would collect $1.35 billion a year in revenue from bridge tolls, congestion pricing, and taxi surcharges.
It’s a complicated situation, and no solution will come without losses of its own. But in order for the subway to keep running at the quality and speed at which we need it, we need the MTA to keep its head dry amidst a storm of gnarly obstacles.