Why We Hate the Subways: Alexander Cockburn Reports From Underground on the Humiliation of the People
March 14, 1977
My experience of subways goes back to when I was two. The Germans were bombing London and my parents would hurry me down onto the platform of the St. John’s Wood underground station. It was one of the deepest in London. We would squat there with the other middle-class inhabitants of St. John’s Wood until the all-clear sounded.
The Germans were unlucky in a way. If St. John’s Wood underground had in any way resembled most of the subway stations in New York, it seems to me beyond doubt that Londoners would have given up within the week, and called on Churchill to sue for peace.
It should be stated bluntly that traveling on the New York subway system is now one of the more frightful experiences Western civilization has to offer on a regular basis. The experience is not only intolerable. It is also a daily advertisement for the brutish sensibilities and shallow brainpans of the people who now control the city. Let me begin autobiographically.
My own sufferings are relatively modest compared to most members of that 86 per cent of the work force who use mass transit in this city. Many of them travel far greater distances at far greater expense in conditions of more prolonged horror.
I descend to the platform at 96th street on the Eighth Avenue line. Quick reconnaissance establishes the fact that feral youth is taking the day off or has simply got bored waiting for the AA, the B, or the CC, and has moved across to the Broadway line to molest people there.
A shattering roar presages the arrival of the A train. It gathers speed as it shoots through the station. People double up in pain as they cover their ears. The torture is magnified by the thunder of a northbound A train moving with equal speed on the upper level. Minutes pass. Finally an AA draws timidly into the station. The car that comes to rest opposite me has no lights. At least I think it has no lights, although this is hard to establish through the grime and pictorial effects achieved by a particularly conscientious graffiti team. I run rapidly for a lighted carriage. So do several other people. We surge toward a door, only half of which opens. There is a desperate struggle to squeeze through the narrow aperture. For a fatal second I hesitate before elbowing an elderly woman aside. She struggles through the closing half door into the car — already crammed, although it is 10:30 in the morning. My hand is wedged in the door. At last I wrench it free and the AA moves triumphantly away.
I think laterally. The sun is shining and I decide to walk across to Broadway and take a train from 96th Street. Twenty minutes later I am aboard the 7th Avenue express, along with the other 500 people in the same car. Rather than make the safe play and ride through to 14th Street. I make the daring gamble to transfer to the BMT at Times Square, thus arriving at Union Square within easy walking distance of The Village Voice. This is a gamble: if I stay on the CC I will — in the fullness of time — arrive at West 4th Street and then have a slightly longer walk to The Voice. I dismount at 42nd Street and start walking toward the BMT. As I near the platform I can hear the arrival of a train. I hasten. I plunge down the ramp. Foiled again. The shortened train is many yards away, in the middle of the platform. Ahead of me a senior citizen is also lumbering along. Just as we arrive the doors slam and the train moves triumphantly away.
Long minutes pass. I make several calls on one of the phones thoughtfully supplied by the authorities to take the edge off delays. The Transit Authority begins to play with us, as a cat toys with a mouse. First a remote voice announces that there is a delay of “up to 10 minutes.” Then, after only eight minutes, we hear the roar of a train. It enters the station, rattles through it, and out the other end. It is empty.
After 15 minutes I devise another plan. I will take the shuttle to Grand Central, transfer to the Lexington Avenue IRT, and in this manner arrive at Union Square. I will omit any account of the long hours required to consummate my strategy. At Grand Central I have a choice between either the express or the local. I choose the express. Somewhere near 32nd Street it has to stop for a rest. The local shoots past. Finally, at 11:20 I arrive at Union Square. By now I am very highly motivated. I will work very hard so that I can make enough money to always travel by taxi, and so that I can pay for a good lawyer to defend me after I have kidnapped the senior member of the MTA and murdered them by throwing them onto the third rail.
Economics of the Cattle Car
New Yorkers now travel to work on a mass-transit system that would cause a revolution in any Third World country. The subway system — and the bus system — represents daily humiliation of the working class and, indeed, of the middle class, straight out of the 19th century. And, of course, the reason disposers of this system of torture feel quite secure is that the victims have no option, no means of escape. The victims have to go to work, ergo the means will be provided to get them there and to get them home. To fulfill this simple function of ferrying the work force from one end of town to the other the system actually works quite well, if by “well” is meant submitting people to suffocating discomfort, great expense, and — increasingly — great danger.
But a subway and bus system is also nominally there for the use of people who wish to go shopping in different parts of the city; who wish to visit museums on weekends; who wish to go to midtown in the evening to have a good time. It is on this aspect of mass transit that the authorities (i.e., the thieves and incompetents who run the MTA) have declared unremitting war. Their aim: to make the trains filthy enough, rare enough, dangerous enough, expensive enough so that no one without the requirement of actually getting to work would dream of boarding them. This simple aim naturally has the desired effect of further bankrupting not only the transit system but also the city, since the shoppers sensibly stick to their own neighborhoods.
Here’s how the system works. Back in 1948 the subway fare was five cents, and two billion people rode on the subways every year. Now the fare is 50 cents and a billion people ride on it every year. This is the problem to which the capitalist mind has addressed itself. Its answer? First of all, create something called the “self-sustaining” fare. This means the responsibility of the subway system is to pay for itself. Almost nothing else in the United States pays for itself, but a mass-transit system actually used by large numbers of people is not allowed this privilege.
But since the “self-sustaining” fare is not sufficient, the following strategy is adopted. Services are cut to economize and the fare is hiked. The result, of course, is a further drop in riders on mass transit and a further increase in the use of private cars. Traffic gets heavier and hence slows up the traffic. Buses are slowed too, so even more people shift to cars. In a short while the bus, subway, or commuter rail lines are again faced with the necessity of increasing the fare or decreasing service. And the wretched people condemned to use mass transit not only have to endure mounting horrors as services are cut and fares raised; they also have to pay more taxes, along with higher prices to help retailers, merchants, and other suppliers pay higher taxes to support the highways and other improvements that bring in more and more cars, thereby slashing further the dwindling revenues of mass-transit lines, and forcing new rises. The end logic of this is that the Transit Authority will charge people $1 a ride to travel in cattle cars.
It is late at night. I am planning an exploratory trip on the subway. The station is nearly deserted and I feel trepidation. I try to soothe myself with the reflections of Mr. Jacques Nevard, director of public affairs of the Transit Authority. He’s a slippery fellow, this Nevard. Earlier in the day my colleague Jan Albert has been trying to get some facts and figures about crime out of him. Nevard is disinclined to provide much information. “When we give reporters the figures on crime in the subway,” he says airily, “they usually go away and don’t do a story because there is practically no story there. Rape and homicide is so low, there’s practically no story.”
I wish Nevard were standing beside me now. He could remind me again that there were only five rapes and five homicides on the subway in 1976. He could add that in the same year 2971 bags were snatched (and two women dragged under the trains), and he could conclude with the bracing information that 145 passengers endured felonious assaults.
And in fact, according to Nevard, I am traveling at a particularly safe time (1 a.m.). “We have a much more useful patrol now,” he tells Jan proudly. “We discovered that half of our force were out on patrol between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m. There are a lot less out during those hours now. They may be the high crime times in the street, but we’ve discovered that the high crime time in the subway is between noon and 8 p.m. The peak is 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. All the nuts are together in the subway then.”
Nevard has one further boast: The “beat the fare” program, geared up to stop people using slugs or sneaking through the turnstiles, actually led to the arrest of one person on his way to rob a bank and another wanted for arrest in another state.
The one thing Nevard never bothered to mention was the fact that major crimes against passengers in the first six weeks of this year increased 39 per cent over the same period last year. As a matter of fact the acting head of the Transit Authority, Harold Fisher, did have a comment here. He said the battle against crime in the subways is a “never-ending war against animals.” Considering his life’s work appears to have been to turn everyone riding the subway into an animal, it would seem he has only himself to blame.
Menace to Life
Thus encouraged, I make my usual run to the shorter train and fall into conversation with another late-night traveler. He complains about the closing of booths. He is right to complain. On January 12 the TA launched a program to reduce operating hours at 57 booths in 52 stations. They are also going to close 23 part-time booths and alter the opening schedules of others. My new acquaintance points out that now that the 96th Street entrance on the Broadway line is closed at night, he will have to walk four more blocks each day, have four times as much chance of being mugged, and will have the added joy of watching the newsstand at 96th Street go bankrupt. Neighborhood groups are demonstrating at this station every Wednesday evening at 8:30 to try to keep the gates open.
I comfort my companion by reading the press release of the TA on these matters. “In most cases the passengers who now use the affected booths will be able to minimize possible inconvenience by buying more than one ride at a time and thus reducing the number of times they need the services of change-booth personnel.” My companion begins to look at me strangely. I continue to read: “Many banks sell tokens in packages, and more and more New Yorkers pick up a week’s supply when they cash their paychecks. In addition bills up to $10 are now accepted at station change booths [presumably to ready people for a $10 fare], and a growing number of subway riders avoid delay by buying a week’s supply of tokens when they find lines the shortest.”
I round off my lecture by informing my companion that he is traveling at a particularly safe time. He is unconvinced, plainly regards me as a dangerous lunatic, and dismounts at the next station. He is right to detect lunacy. People correctly fear the subway because they perceive it as a locus of crime. It is no use telling them that a man on his way to rob a bank (and thus presumably no menace to passengers) was arrested for not buying a token. Would you let your grandmother travel on the subway at night alone, even at the safe hour of 1 a.m.? Do you know where your grandmother is, come to think of it?
The Villainous Car
My train roars on, lurching dangerously. I stop trying to work out my statistical chances of being mutilated and start to contemplate the likelihood of my being killed in a smash. These chances, for all subway riders, are increasing every day.
The reason, of course, is lack of proper maintenance, both of the cars and of the track. The Committee for Better Transit has been monitoring 1200 cars. Eighty per cent of them have defects: The doors do not open, the lights do not work, fire extinguishers are missing, the air conditioning and heating do not function. And of course the cars get filthier and filthier.
Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union tells us that so far as car maintenance is concerned, “overall safety levels are being maintained.” The TWU does not offer similar comfort so far as the track or “way” is concerned. In such areas as light signals, lighting, ventilation, tracks, drainage, and electrical items, “maintenance in almost every area is being deferred due to the lack of personnel and funds.” And Local 100 concludes, “There is a very serious potential of a major disaster.”
It stands to reason that there is serious potential for a major disaster. For example, the inspection of overhead structures such as those in the Bronx has been drastically reduced. Bolts will fall off and kill people. In 1973 parts of the overhead ventilation duct on the Flushing line collapsed on a train, killed someone, and injured others. With the TA laying off “invisible personnel” this is just as likely to happen now.
Another peril is the lack of drainage. Water rots away the ties or makes them like sponges. With the track no longer secure, derailments become more likely every day. And as garbage mounts up the chances of a fire augment, too. Since people smoke with increasing blatancy on the system, the probability that the piles of garbage will suddenly go up in flames and suffocate riders to death becomes more real each day.
In sum, what has happened is that preventive maintenance has gone out the window. Sooner or later, people are going to die or be injured as a result. The TWU is very clear about it: “The MTA promised to improve their maintenance in this area [overhead structures], but the fact is that we have at this date less inspections than we did in 1975. Our union states for the record that unless conditions change, a major disaster could occur at any time.”
Sadism and Sabotage
The next day I travel to work by a mode of conveyance profiting greatly from the sabotage of the mass-transit system, to wit, the taxi. We slowly grind our way downtown through the rush hour, adding our own mite of carbon monoxide to the morning air. I study a pamphlet put out by the Citizens for Clean Air. They inform me that the motorist in Manhattan wastes $144.3 million annually as his share of the costs of congestion. Taxis and buses waste respectively $49.3 million and $19.8 million as their share. The cost of congestion in New York is at least $650 million a year.
More figures: The New York metropolitan region spends $37 billion on mobility — the movement of goods and people. A mere 6 per cent of this ($2.2 billion) goes for public transit. The social cost of delivering bus service is 22 cents per passenger mile; less than 10 cents per passenger mile for subways (15 cents if you include the $3 billion capitalization and rehabilitation program); for cars it’s 60 cents per vehicle mile.
Just 13 per cent of the people going to Manhattan each day travel by private car. And yet these motorists are the people getting cover subsidies. If the motorist were required to bear the allocated costs of congestion, traffic accidents, and air pollution he would have to pay an additional cost of 34.9 cents a mile traveled in Manhattan. And if the street and highway costs were also billed to him he would pay an additional 60.9 cents a mile traveled in Manhattan, not counting tolls and running charges. This is the equivalent of increasing the cost of gas by a tax of $7.31 a gallon, if he were to reimburse the social costs and subsidies.
But, of course, the bigwigs travel by car. The people who have fouled up the transit system travel by car. Governor Carey travels by car, Mayor Beame travels by car, on those occasions he dares to go out. And so, instead of resurrecting the subway system, they tolerated the fare hike to 50 cents and decided to give $1.1 billion to the insane folly of Westway, which will benefit just 3 per cent of people commuting to Manhattan.
What happened when the fare went to 50 cents — in the decision under cover of darkness described in this issue by Jack Newfield? Bus and subway ridership was reduced by about 10 per cent. Auto and taxi travel increased by 16 per cent. Carbon monoxide levels increased by another 15 to 20 per cent over the 20 per cent increase since mid-1972. Congestion increased, further bankrupting the city. Traffic accidents increased — by a possible 20,000 a year. As many as 400,000 discretionary trips (shopping, pleasure, and personal business) will simply not be made. Added subsidies to schoolchildren and the elderly will cost the city another $25 million. The added auto and taxi travel will increase gas consumption in the city by more than 28 million gallons.
Just to sum it up: To produce a net increase in transit revenues of $110 million, the fare hike has cost the city — directly and indirectly — about $300 million annually. They destroyed the city in order to save it.
And further horrors lie in store. A total of 725 buses in all the boroughs will be cut by the end of June. The consequent overcrowding and interminable delays are not hard to imagine. The subway system will continue to rot.
What has happened to mass transit is symbolic of what has happened to the city. Cruelty and stupidity have struck at the people who can respond least. The city is rendered meaner and uglier.
And what should happen? Elementary, my dear MTA executive. Restore services, clean up the subways and maintain them properly, link the subways with the commuter rails, develop existing facilities instead of planning berserkly expensive new lines, transfer the highway subsidies to mass transit, roll back the fare, get New York its rightful share of federal and state money, carve some of the fat off middle-class backsides riding in their automobiles, make mass transit a pleasure to ride on instead of a voyage through hell. Once — seemingly an eon ago — people argued for free mass transit and a general tax to pay for it. How nostalgic such schemes seem now, when nirvana is what we had six months ago. But something had better be done soon, before the transit system is entirely destroyed, or before people come up out of the stations with railroad ties in their hands and march on City Hall and the Transit Authority with intent to kill their torturers or — worse still — make them ride the subway all the time.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 16, 2020