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From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Transit Uncategorized

Why We Hate the Subways

Alexander Cockburn Reports From Underground on the Humiliation of the People

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Criminal Figures

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.

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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?

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Transit Uncategorized

A Ride on the New York Subway

December 21, 1972The New York subways are, and always have been, a kind of Kafkaesque parallel to the life that is lived above ground on the streets of the most quintessential city in the world. Each working day of their lives, millions of New Yorkers “willingly” descend hundreds of feet, through huge manholes in the street, into a subterranean world of darkness and gloom; there, in the dimness, they crowd mechanically together in astonishing numbers at the edge of a deep pit riven with tracks of steel fatal to the human touch, along which will hurtle with exhausting irregularity an iron monster spitting flame and noise like some pagan construction designed for the express purpose of intimidating the cowering human; when the monster comes to a temporary halt, doors slide open in its sides, and the men and women at the edge of the pit tumble inside, very much like Jonah tumbling into the whale; the doors then lock shut, and the iron creature goes roaring off down the pitch-black tunnel with its cargo of human prisoners — sullen penitents all: confused, silent, passive-aggressives doomed to an hour or more of suffocating companionship; during which time it becomes extremely difficult for anyone aboard the monster to see his own reflection in the closed faces that are relentlessly jammed, eyeball to eyeball, breath to breath, blackhead to blackhead, up against one another…

But there are times when the subway, like the city itself, seems so grotesque that, indeed, one wonders how this entire enterprise can continue to call itself human. Much less continue.

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***

Not too long ago, at 5:30 on a Wednesday afternoon, I found myself for the first time in more than ten years on the Times Square station of the IRT subway, in the midst of the grueling workday rush hour. Although I grew up in the Bronx, working and attending school in Manhattan throughout my adolescent years, trudging on and off the subways twice a day during all that time, it had been a veritable lifetime since I had had to use the subway at this unholy hour. Now, having an odd chance to visit a relative still living in the Bronx of my childhood, I stood here, surveying the scene which, during a decade of absence, had become entirely foreign to me.

I was the only white person on the platform. All around me were New York’s working-class blacks and Puerto Ricans, pouring down onto the wide, gloomy subway platform from the offices and factories that filled the streets above our heads, jamming the uptown trains that, at the end of a weary working day, would release them some sixty or seventy minutes later into the streets of Upper Manhattan and the Bronx. Their numbers seemed extraordinary to me; I seemed to have no recollection of this many people on the trains, even at this hour. The platform was filled to capacity, and still they kept coming: the strongly muscled young black men who push the heavily loaded dress racks through the streets of the garment district; the fat Puerto Rican women who sit at the machines in the dress factories; the Puerto Rican men, thin and wan, who spend forty hours a week tying packages or keeping track of shipping orders; the black and brown girls who bring home fifty-five dollars on Friday after a mindless day of clerk-typing; the gray-haired messenger boys, the round-shouldered bookkeepers, the lunch-counter waitresses; that whole tight, closed, no-way-out world up there seemed bent on pushing its way down here, onto this grimy black metal construction, and now threatened, nearly, to spill over onto the tracks… I looked around in alarm.

The platform was indescribably filthy; the tile walls surrounding the staircases were streaked with years-old dirt and the graffiti of a thousand greasy marker pens: Johnny and Velda, ’69; The Jets Was Here; Lindsay Sucks; Tony and Maureen, ’71; Benny and Concita Forever; Loreen Is A Cunt; The Black Hawks Can Beat The Shit Outta The Silver Eagles Anytime. On and on it went, in an endless abstraction of red, blue, and black that covered the walls, the staircases, parts of the platform itself. The floor was littered with the overflow of the few trash cans that stood vaguely about: candy wrappers, orange peels, leaky milk cartons, prophylactic wrappers, torn nylon stockings, pellets of chewed gum, discarded junk mail, globbets of spit. The lights in the ceiling were crusted over with webs of dirt that threatened, momentarily, to fall onto the heads of the passengers. The ceiling of the tunnel seemed lower, the walls more porous, the floor harder than ever I remembered; the black metal pillar supports were caked with rust; tiles in the walls on the far side of the tracks had been ripped out, and the plaster within hung loose like a set of nerves that have been severed. All in all an atmosphere of total, unutterable abandonment; one in which the people have vanished and the rats have taken over. “Dear God,” I thought in a silent panic, “how can they live this way? How can they live this way?”

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In this insufferable gloom, the men and women all about me seemed to take on some of the darkness emanating from the walls, the ceiling, the floor of the tunnel in which we all stood, causing their own natural darkness to appear almost menacing. Faces were closed, sullen, expressionless; eyes were dead, vacant, staring; limbs folded and inert. A black man in a red shirt and a porkpie hat pushed up onto the back of his head stood beside me, a dead cigar stuck in his mouth, his unregistering eyes fixed on some distant point down in the track pit; a rush of people spilling down from behind made me lurch into the man in the red shirt; he continued to stare, unblinking, out at the tracks. A few feet away, a young Puerto Rican woman, wearing a pink plastic rain slicker and carrying a large black leather handbag, leaned against a black metal pillar; she, too, stared sightlessly as she was flung about by people pushing past her in both directions at once. A heavy-set black woman holding two little children tightly by the hand glared momen­tarily at a man whose elbow had jabbed her; but then she quickly subsided into the somnolence that had previously enveloped her. A brown-skinned couple, incredibly small and thin, she in scuffed plastic wedgies, he in a black imitation-leather jacket, stood with their arms entwined about each other’s matchstick-narrow waists; on their faces, also, a fearful vacancy, an extraordinary submission. People looked as though they dared not see, hear, or respond. A sense of dread began to leak through me: It was as though I found myself in a universe of abdicating intelligence, some hellish vacuum of human refusal… alone, entirely alone; should anything happen, I knew, there would be no help coming. No help at all.

A young black man appeared in the crowd not five feet from where I stood. He was surely no more than eighteen or nineteen, and was dressed in a spotted blue nylon shirt and a pair of shiny black cotton pants. The smile on his face took me by surprise: so unexpected! so reviving! I had not realized the level of tension building in me until I felt welling up in me the relief caused by this single evidence of human friendliness. But then I saw that the smile on the young man’s face was blind, unfocused, turned inward; and that his eyeballs were rolling gently about in his face, his legs were turning to rubber beneath him, his arms were flailing the air in some imaginary prizefighter’s motion. What I had taken for cheerful connectiveness was in fact the solitary and antisocial vision of the drugged; and as the young man’s loosely clenched fists thrust closer and closer toward me, and his blind smile widened, and his legs twisted fearfully about, he became an eerie creature, sinister and unrecognizable to me. I flinched, and moved backward in a panicky effort to protect myself.

A train pulled into the express side of the station. I strained toward it. No hope of boarding it. Fifty people jammed the space between myself and the tracks, forming a single pushing wall I was no longer expert at inserting myself into. As I stood there in confusion, one eye on the addict at my side, the other wildly seeking some way out, three black boys rammed me and everyone around me, and went charging toward the train. They headed not for the doors but for the small open ends of the cars protected by linked chains, bulling their way through the crowd. Despite the presence of a conductor whose head was protruding from the small window at the end of the car nearest them, the three boys wrenched the chains apart, and with a wild war whoop leaped onto the open platform of the linked train cars, nearly knocking two women to the ground as they went. I looked into the faces of those boys, and I grew frightened. Their eyes seemed to glint with a kind of ferocious triumph, their mouths twisted into laughter that was a grimace, fury burned in their flared nostrils, their tensed arms looked, almost, as if they held weapons; for one hallucinating moment I imagined I saw flames licking at their feet. “Dear God,” I thought. “Who are these people? Who are they?” The train jerked itself together, roaring out of the station, and I remained where I stood, my head reeling.

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Abruptly, I looked up and out into the platform crowd, and there, still leaning against the metal pillar, was the young Puerto Rican woman in the pink plastic slicker — staring at me. What’s this? I thought, and looked back at her. Our eyes locked. For a length of time which felt eerily like a slow-motion sequence, that strange mutual stare endured, creating a sudden, curious silence in the midst of all this turmoil. And then — as in a dream that may take only eleven seconds to unfold but gives the illusion of hours passing — I felt the entirety of my immediate experience here on this subway platform tumbling, quickly slowly, through a kaleidoscope of altered meaning, spinning and jerking inside my head, buzzing through the unnatural silence that now surrounded and penetrated me.

For, there in the eyes of the young Puerto Rican woman staring at me, I could see my own face reflected. I could see all of my thoughts and feelings of the last twenty minutes being summed up and appraised. I could see the mixture of mockery and sympathy in her eyes that said so clearly and so honestly what I had not quite been able to say to myself. “We are ‘those people’ to you, aren’t we?” her eyes said, “and all this is happening in another country, isn’t it?” I could see the weary, working-class sophistication with which she “recognized” the entire human scene around her, and the amusement with which she observed middle-class panic. I could see the bitter intelligence that indicated she knew I’d been looking at the people around me as though they were animals in a zoo. But, more than any of these things I could see in her face, I could see me in her face. I could see me at 17 (she was no more than 18 or 19), standing exactly where she now stood, thinking exactly what she was now thinking, drawing the same ironic conclusions she was now drawing… The kaleido­scope stopped spinning and transformed itself into a tunnel of time down which I was quickly transported.

Twenty-five years ago these subways were filled with working-class Jews, and my father was one of them. Twice a day, for a quarter of a century, my father endured this subhuman exhaustion in order to stand eight hours a day at a steam iron in a dress factory on West 38th Street. Twice a day he gathered together with thousands of other Jewish immigrants here in this black gloom to hang from a strap in the final galling hour of a sweat-filled workday, drained of all thought and energy, his glazed mind able to concentrate only on a single fixed point: the moment when he would walk through the door of that railroad flat in the Bronx he called home. At 17, I took my place beside him on the subway (although he was already gone: dead at 51 of a heart attack), entering the ranks of working-class straphangers. But with a single vital difference: I was now a college student, already in that process of cultural absorption that would leave me with a kind of double-vision for the rest of my life. At 17, I knew well enough the difference between “us” and “them”; what’s more, I also knew how “they” saw “us”; I had read Hutchins Hapsgood’s turn-of-the-­century study of Jews in the “ghet-to,” and had thought, as I read his descriptions of small, squat Semites on the Lower East Side jabbering  Yiddish at the tops of their lungs, eating odd-smelling foods like gefilte fish, and wearing the skull caps, beards, and black clothes of the Middle Ages, “My God, that’s us he’s talking about!” And I remembered, now, as though it were yesterday, a day on the subway when I hung from a strap, my City College books under my free arm, surrounded by Jews of all sizes and shapes (mostly short and fat), speaking uneducated Yiddish to one another at the tops of their voices, and a tall slim man with blue eyes and straight blond hair stood at the far end of the car, staring unashamedly at us  — exactly as though we were animals in a zoo.

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The young Puerto Rican woman and I were still staring at each other; I shook my head slightly, and smiled into her face. I wanted to laugh and hug her. I felt free, as though a weight had been lifted from my chest. It wasn’t racism, after all, that I had been experiencing, only a classic instance of “class alienation.” Which, of course, is what New York is all about… How was it possible that in only one short generation I had forgotten who I was, and where I came from? And what I knew of the varieties of human pain experienced behind that annihilating phrase “those people”?

The young black addict at my side began to grow uncontrollable. He staggered around in wheeling circles, his legs buckling dangerously beneath him, a thin trickle of spittle drooling down the side of his mouth, his head down and coming straight at me. Then — and I will always wonder: Could it have happened before I had thought all this? — the black man in the red shirt and the porkpie hat sprang into action. He grabbed my arm and yanked me out of the path of the addict, half ­pushing me behind his own body. Our eyes met for a moment: In his was the same mixture of fear and disgust that undoubtedly flickered in my own. His lips tightened and he shook his head slowly from side to side in agreement, we are on the same side. I nodded at him, and for first time since I had descended into the subway I felt safe, back among my own people, back among people who saw danger where I saw it, and implicit in that single sight were shared assumptions about the value of certain kinds of human behavior. More I could not ask from the strangers all about me.

Another train pulled into the station. The man in the red shirt took firm hold of my upper arm and propelled me through the crowd, into the jaws of the iron monster. After that I was back on my own. Pushed, shoved, jammed, rammed, poked, pulled: That was the ride uptown. Fifty people packed into a space properly occupied by 25; everyone remained silent, and protected the last memory of separate humanness by meeting no one’s eyes. Hot breath poured down our necks and sweat rolled down the sides of our faces. Arms atrophied and legs grew numb. Elbows tried desperately to extricate themselves from ribs. Everywhere a frantic lookout for pickpockets.

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An enormous black woman broke the sucked-in silence. Her huge bosom almost at the level of my eyes, she looked down into my face as the train swayed and jerked along the tracks, shook her head solemnly from side to side, wiped her hand across her sweating eyes, and said, “Oh, honey! Ain’t this somethin’. Some dessert after a day’s work!” She sounded exactly like my mother, who spent years of her life railing against the subway. Only my mother, inevitably, would have ended with “A black year on all politicians! The mayor should be forced to ride the IRT every day for a month.”

At 149th Street and Third Avenue, in the Bronx, the train left the tunnel and emerged into the early evening twilight. Half the people in the car in which I was riding went spilling off onto the first elevated station, which is situated in one of the worst black and Puerto Rican slums in the city. The man in the red shirt was one of the last to leave the train. As he reached the door, he suddenly turned and looked at me. The dead cigar was still stuck in his mouth and his eyes were once more expressionless; but he lifted his porkpie hat to me, and lowered his head slightly in my direction. I nodded back. He disappeared through the door. We had spoken not a single word to each other.

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From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Transit

Think We Hate the Subways Now? At Least in 1977 It Only Cost 50 Cents

The Voice’s March 14, 1977, cover pulled no punches: why we hate the subways. Across four subsequent pages, writers Alexander Cockburn, Jack Newfield, and Timothy Crouse laid out the argument. Cockburn, leading off, compares riding Gotham’s subway system to when he was two years old and his parents would go into their neighborhood’s underground tube station in London as German planes dropped bombs on the city. The family would squat, he writes, with “other middle-class inhabitants of St. John’s Wood until the all-clear sounded.” He then moves forward three decades: “Traveling on the New York subway system is now one of the more frightful experiences Western civilization has to offer on a regular basis.” He gives a blow-by-blow account of a crowded, disjointed, and roughly hourlong commute from 96th Street to Union Square, concluding, “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 members of the MTA and murdered them by throwing them onto the third rail.” He also points out the crime problem, noting a comment by the head of the Transit Authority, Harold Fisher: “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.”

While Cockburn asserts that “New Yorkers now travel to work on a mass-transit system that would cause a revolution in any Third World country,” Newfield digs into the numbers to reveal the lack of accountability among political leaders: “The fall of New York coincides with the rise of public authorities. The original unelected power broker, Robert Moses, imagined and created the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority in 1934. Today this empire of invisible bureaucracies numbers more than 200 and constitutes a fourth branch of state government.” Newfield’s article includes a rogues’ gallery of high officials who are failing the system, and a photo caption states, “The Voice will give 50 free tokens to the first person who catches any of these men riding the subway.” Just like today, the people charged with administering the subway rarely suffered the indignity of relying on it. Newfield provides a history on the mismanagement of the subway that is now only slightly more ancient history, but still as true: Fares go up, service goes down.

Finally, Timothy Crouse reports on riding the city’s bus lines. (He was no doubt assigned the task partly because he was author of a book critiquing the media coverage of the 1972 presidential campaign, The Boys on the Bus.) Crouse nails the bane of every bus rider in New York City — waiting seemingly forever for the number X bus, while three number Z’s come by your stop. Crouse goes on to say, however, that he still likes to ride the bus, even if you have to wait long for one, because once you’re a regular, “you get to know some of the personnel, like the driver who always plays jazz on his radio, not too loud, just enough to calm the winos.”

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THE FRONT ARCHIVES Transit

Monday Morning’s Subway Mess Was Caused by an MTA Typo

There is a phrase New York City Transit president Andy Byford borrows from the soccer world to describe meltdowns like this morning’s D-N-R debacle: “own goals.” What ought to have been a routine service change ended up leading to hours-long trips, crawling trains, and widespread confusion. But unlike in some previous transit nightmares, in this case centuries-old equipment didn’t malfunction, car doors didn’t break, tracks didn’t split. Instead, it was entirely the result of a series of MTA bureaucratic screwups.

The mess began during the morning rush when people tried to take the D, N, and R trains in Sunset Park toward Manhattan. Not only were the trains delayed, but the N express tracks were completely blocked off with a big blue wall, with no signage or announcements in the station explaining why.

Adding to the confusion, N trains were also listed as having “Good Service” despite, you know, the wall.

Compounding the issue, the official @NYCTSubway account tweeted at 9:17 a.m. — before the official delay notice was posted on the website — to “expect longer wait times and delays on the N, R, and D lines in Brooklyn while we perform necessary structural repairs in the tunnel — essential work to restore reliable service.”

Naturally, many riders interpreted this to mean the delays were the direct result of the work being done. In subsequent tweets, @NYCTSubway added that this work would continue 24-7 until December. This is the point when riders started to freak out, contemplating every commute for the next five months being just like Monday morning’s.

The good news for D, N, and R riders is these massive delays will not happen every day, because this morning’s delays didn’t need to happen at all.

The bad news is that Monday’s meltdown undermines the many promises New York City Transit has been making over the past few months regarding improved customer communications and, as Byford often says, getting “the basics right.”

As chief customer officer Sarah Meyer said in a statement, the hours of delays resulted from “congestion at the northern end of the project site.” (This morning’s mayhem was set off when D trains at 36th Street, the north end of the section of tracks being worked on, were unable to get to the express track, leading N and R trains to pile up behind them.) According to internal documents provided to the Voice, the cause was actually a mistake in the project’s work order, which identified the wrong signal as the end point of the track work: F4-466 instead of F4-468.

To compound the problem, straphangers had no idea this work was going on because of a quirk in the way New York City Transit creates its schedules. The long-term work on the express N track between 36th and 59th streets had been incorporated into the subway’s permanent schedules, as Meyer explained on Twitter, and therefore “wasn’t flagged as ‘planned work’ that required a supplement,” referring to the temporary schedules that are created in response to planned work. Those supplement schedules are what trigger her team’s communications plans, such as station posters and announcements alerting riders. So without the work showing up on the supplement schedule, nobody knew to announce the planned work.

Ironically, without the work order flub identifying the wrong signal and causing hours of delays, this whole issue might have gone largely unremarked upon. The construction’s only practical consequence going forward should be that the N will run on the local tracks between 36th Street and 59th Street, making two local stops, and adding five minutes or less to each N train journey.

In her statement, Meyer struck the contrite tone increasingly typical of New York City Transit communications: “We deeply apologize for our significant errors today and know that we need to do better. We are working through our policies and procedures to ensure this does not happen again.”

But some straphangers are growing tired of the “ensure this does not happen again” line.

The frustration is shared by MTA brass. As Byford is quoted as saying in the recent New Yorker profile on him, “God, I hate own goals.”

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THE FRONT ARCHIVES Transit

We Can’t Tell If the Subway Action Plan Worked, Which Was the MTA’s Whole Idea

“Hold me accountable,” MTA Chairman Joe Lhota told reporters last July when he introduced the Subway Action Plan, the authority’s $836 million initiative to “stabilize and improve the subway system and lay the foundation for modernizing the New York City Subway.”

On Monday, the New York Times ran an article setting out to do just that, essentially declaring the Subway Action Plan a failure — noting that MTA statistics “show minor progress in some areas, but no major boost in reliability, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on repairs.” Lhota immediately pushed back, calling the premise of the article “pure fiction,” and insisting the Subway Action Plan was only supposed to “stabilize the system to prevent a continuation of the free-fall.”

The problem is, they’re both right. Because, pledges of accountability aside, the Subway Action Plan was designed to be amorphous enough that it’s nearly impossible to judge whether it was a success or a failure.

The official MTA press release on July 25, 2017, announcing the plan vowed: “The first phase starts immediately and will deliver improvements within one year.” But for all it offered in dollars and big numbers, parts to be fixed, or maintenance schedules to be accelerated, it lacked in hard, fact-checkable promises. Even the fully fleshed-out plan was all inputs, no outputs: Clean 40,000 street grates, triple the rate of installing continuous welded track, put in 50,000 friction pads on the rails, overhaul more cars, and station more emergency response personnel throughout the system. While nobody questions that these things were worth doing, there was also no consensus on how much it would help.

In May, AM New York reported that one small aspect of the plan, removing seats from some E trains to increase capacity, was impossible for even the MTA to judge. The authority couldn’t figure out how to measure its impact, it turned out, because even if it had the intended effect of increasing capacity, the impact was so marginal that it would not have registered in any of the statistics the MTA uses to measure performance. Jaqi Cohen of Straphangers Campaign put it best: “If the MTA can’t quantify how much performance has improved or not improved due to the removal of these seats, that’s a problem.”

So, too, with the Subway Action Plan as a whole. At the time of the plan’s release, the MTA bragged that it “addresses 79 percent of the major incidents that cause delays in the system.” But as I wrote back in March, the Subway Action Plan did not even target the cause of most delays, which are largely not the result of major incidents.

In fact, during this Monday’s MTA board committee meeting, Senior Vice President of Subways Sally Librera said that the 40 percent of delays — 22,350 in June — attributed to “Operating Environment” are “the delays we absorb as a system that aren’t tied to a single incident.” These would be things like signal timers slowing trains down, which reduces capacity, which in turn creates delayed trains. An additional 25 percent of delays are caused by trains slowing down to 10 miles per hour near work zones, while 14 percent more are due to “external” causes such as police and emergency responses, sick customers, and weather. Which is to say, using June’s figures — which were representative of previous months — four out of every five delayed trains were not the result of the types of delays $836 million was supposed to fix.

In the entire Subway Action Plan, in fact, there was not a single solid declaration for what success would look like, unless you count reducing EMT response time from 45 minutes to 15 minutes — something that’s impossible to verify with publicly available figures.

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The unavoidable takeaway from current performance stats — not to mention the daily experience of riding the subway — is that we’re basically where we were a year ago; definitely not worse, maybe slightly better, but $836 million poorer. Meanwhile, the meltdowns keep coming, routine delays are a fact of life, and weekend subway service is a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure exercise.

Yet it’s difficult to argue with Lhota’s assertion that the subway has been “stabilized” because, as Nick Sifuentes of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign told Curbed NY, “we don’t have the counterfactual.” As in, we don’t know what would have happened to the subway if we didn’t spend $836 million to clear drains or install 50,000 friction pads. Lhota and the MTA can always argue things would have been worse had we not done those improvements. Fair enough, but what we do know is that delays in the categories the Subway Action Plan was supposed to address had only marginally increased from 2012 through 2017. In that sense, the Subway Action Plan couldn’t possibly fail, because the statistic it was meant to stabilize was already fairly stable.

This is in stark contrast to the culture Andy Byford is now fostering as president of NYC Transit. His Fast Forward Plan, a comprehensive reimagination of the entire agency, calls for “a clear, time-bound mandate to which we expect to be held accountable.” Although he’s still seeking funding for it, Byford is already putting this principle into practice. On Monday, his team vowed that by the end of the year they would reduce weekday delays by 10,000 per month, a statistic that is publicly released every month in the NYCT committee materials. Whether they succeed, at least, come 2019, we won’t be arguing about what the goal was in the first place.

And even if we wanted to hold Lhota accountable for this $836 million stabilization program, good luck figuring out how. He’s appointed to his position by the governor. You could vote against Cuomo in the primaries if you so desire, but aside from that, Lhota is virtually untouchable. The only other option is to tweet at him and hope he actually reads it.

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THE FRONT ARCHIVES Transit

Maybe We Didn’t Need the Second Avenue Subway After All

When the calendar flipped from 2016 to 2017, Governor Cuomo rode the subway. As you may recall, this was no ordinary subway trip: It was the inaugural run of the Q along its new route, down from the 96th Street terminus of the shiny, new Second Avenue Subway. You know, a ribbon cutting. Our governor loves ribbon cuttings.

With last week’s release of station-by-station ridership figures for 2017, we can finally learn the impact this long-awaited subway extension had on the system. As it turns out, the Second Avenue Subway is undoubtedly a benefit, but at $4.5 billion for just the three stations built so far, a very expensive one. And the stats also tell us much more about the problem the line was built to solve — and raise the question of whether that $4.5 billion would have been better spent elsewhere.

The Second Avenue Subway’s primary reason for existence was to lighten the load on the overburdened 4/5/6 Lexington Avenue line, the busiest subway corridor in North America after the Second and Third Avenue Els were torn down mid-century. This was a worthy goal, and to some degree, the new line accomplished this: The five Lexington Avenue stops closest to the subway extension — 96th Street, 86th Street, 77th Street, 68th Street–Hunter College, and Lexington Avenue–59th Street — saw 17,377,828 fewer swipes into those stations last year, or about 47,600 per day.

Meanwhile, the three new Second Avenue Subway stations experienced almost 21.7 million trips last year, or just a hair shy of 60,000 per day. After factoring in large ridership changes at other nearby stations — the Lexington Avenue–63th Street F/Q station saw a 1.3 million bump in trips, while the Fifth Avenue–59th Street N/R/W had 560,000 fewer — the total change in ridership after the Second Avenue line opened nets out to just a hair more than 5 million additional subway riders in 2017, or about 14,000 per day.

This is greater than officials projected in terms of ridership gained: MTA planners didn’t expect much new ridership from the Second Avenue Subway, knowing that it’s only two blocks from an existing subway. But in the grand scheme of New York City transit, it’s a pretty low number; it’s about the same number of riders who take the B36 bus between Coney Island and Sheepshead Bay each day.

But since construction began on the Second Avenue Subway in 2009, the subway’s performance has steadily declined to the point where it is now in crisis. The Second Avenue Subway’s opening was a short-lived respite of good news from the otherwise constant barrage of nightmarish headlines. State of Emergency, Subway Action Plan, declining performance, you know the rest.

At best, the Second Avenue Subway is the lone bright spot in an otherwise concerning trend of declining public transit ridership. Even with the increase in ridership on the Upper East Side thanks to the Second Avenue Subway, Manhattan still lost 10,821,930 subway trips last year. This ridership drop is almost certainly due to the increasingly poor service, which itself is a result of maintenance backlogs, antiquated technologies, and questionable management decisions.

As I have previously reported, while tunnel-boring machines were grinding their way underneath Second Avenue to relieve the 4/5/6, the MTA was installing unnecessary signal timers on the Lexington line that ended up reducing its capacity. The New York Times later found that in June and July of last year, during the average weekday rush hour window, 57 scheduled trains on the 4/5/6 simply do not run. Those ghost trains alone could have fit the number of riders who switched to taking the Second Avenue Subway.

Indeed, at the time the MTA was justifying the Second Avenue Subway, one of the key words involved was “overcrowding” — as in, crowding on the 4/5/6 was causing delays, and the only feasible way to address that was to build the Second Avenue line. This was the prevailing logic in 2009, and even for much of 2017 after the Second Avenue Subway was completed. Yet the new transit chief, Andy Byford, has since declared overcrowding is not, and never has been, the root cause of delays. Overcrowding is the result of delays, not the cause.

We know now that the Second Avenue Subway could not possibly have been the most cost-effective way to relieve crowding on the Lexington Avenue line. That would be upgrading the signals to Communications-Based Train Control, or CBTC. One of the first lines Byford wants to tackle is, in fact, the 4/5/6 from 149th Street–Grand Concourse in the Bronx to Nevins Street in Brooklyn. Doing so would allow the MTA to run trains much more efficiently, increase capacity, and turn those ghost trains into real trains.

This project alone would provide a benefit to Lexington Avenue line orders of magnitude greater than the Second Avenue Subway for a fraction of the cost. (Re-signaling the Queens Boulevard line from Kew Gardens–Union Turnpike to 50th Street is expected to cost $425 million; the Eighth Avenue line from 59th Street to High Street has a preliminary estimate of $375 million.) But the main holdup for Byford’s plan is he needs the money. Oh, if only he could have, say, $4.5 billion available, enough to upgrade most of the subway system to CBTC.

Most transit experts will tell you that thanks to decades of apathy the subway needs to build extensions and rapidly upgrade its existing infrastructure. No disagreement here; the best version of New York City is one where we can do both. But, as the last several decades and Byford’s ongoing efforts to secure funding illustrate, that isn’t the New York we have. Instead, the MTA is working on scraping together $6 billion for Phase II of the Second Avenue Subway, which will take it up to 125th Street — at that price tag, the MTA could almost certainly re-signal the entire subway system. The question isn’t why the Upper East Side can’t have nice things, but why, with so many dire, urgent needs across the system, the Upper East Side should be disproportionate benefactors.

In any case, the Second Avenue Subway extension has now been built, so we must do our best to enjoy it. The people who used to have a fifteen-minute walk to the subway but now have a mere ten-minute walk must savor those precious moments. The straphangers still taking the 4/5/6 ought to bask in the extra space they now have. Take an extra second to enjoy the world-class art in the new stations. Somebody has to, because Governor Cuomo won’t. He hasn’t ridden the subway since. After all, there haven’t been any ribbon cuttings.

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THE FRONT ARCHIVES Transit

The City’s Shuttle Bus Plan for the L Train Shutdown Is a Recipe for Gridlock

On any given weekday, the Williamsburg Bridge is clogged with traffic. As one of just two toll-free East River crossings — along with the Manhattan Bridge — that provide commercial vehicles with direct access to Lower Manhattan from Brooklyn and Long Island, the Williamsburg Bridge is a crucial route for trucks and large vans. During rush hours, bridge traffic not only makes the span itself a mess, but packs streets on either end for dozens of blocks.

It is into this gridlock that the MTA and DOT plan on sending up to 80 buses per hour during the L train shutdown to shuttle displaced L train riders across the river. Four Select Bus Service routes created just for the shutdown will take commuters from Williamsburg to subway stops in lower Manhattan and vice versa.

“Buses will be an important piece of the puzzle,” DOT commissioner Polly Trottenberg told the City Council during a hearing on the shutdown plans last month. The MTA predicts approximately 17 percent of displaced L riders, or up to 4,200 riders per hour and more than 30,000 per day, will use these shuttle buses, while the rest will take to other subway lines, and to a lesser extent bicycles or ferries.

Yet DOT has opted not to put a dedicated bus lane on the bridge itself — meaning buses will have to compete with existing commercial traffic. Further, the city plans to institute only limited bus lanes on the approaches, which transit experts warn could doom the entire shuttle bus system.

J.P. Patafio, vice president of the surface transit division of Transit Workers Union Local 100, which represents the city’s bus drivers, says forcing buses to compete with commercial vehicles for space on a narrow bridge is a recipe for disaster. “The Williamsburg Bridge is a particularly tricky bridge because it isn’t a modern bridge with wide lanes,” he says. “If you don’t give a bus a dedicated lane, I don’t care what they say, you’re gonna have traffic backing up in Manhattan because it’s going to be backing up on the bridge” in the afternoon rush; during the morning rush, meanwhile, Brooklyn “is going to be a mess.”

Walter Hook, a New York City–based urban planner for BRTPlan, which specializes in implementing Bus Rapid Transit routes, tells the Voice that the risk is “very high” that the Williamsburg Bridge will be “totally clogged” during the shutdown.

“We met with DOT and we walked them through it,” Hook recalls. “And we said that these buses are gonna go two miles per hour.”

***

When the L train stops running under the East River next year, the only vehicle restriction Mayor de Blasio’s DOT plans to place on the Williamsburg Bridge is an HOV-3 rule: All cars must have at least three people in them. Commercial vehicles and ride shares — which are expected to soar in popularity during the shutdown — will still be permitted at all times, even during peak commuting hours. (Ride shares will have to abide by the HOV-3 restriction.) These restrictions are far less stringent than the ones being put in place on 14th Street between Third and Eighth avenues, where DOT is making the entire road bus-only from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week.

Every aspect of the mitigation plan — from the extra subway service to the shuttle buses to the ferries — has to run smoothly because even the slightest hitch could throw the whole plan into disarray. To wit: DOT found that if only three percent of projected 14th Street bus riders opted for For-Hire Vehicles instead, the entire benefit of the busway would be negated by increased congestion on the surrounding streets.

“DOT’s traffic studies show that the HOV 3+ lane will provide an adequate flow of buses over the bridge,” a DOT spokesperson told the Voice in an email. “If any adjustments are needed during the shutdown, we will make them accordingly.”

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Transit activists have been sounding the alarm about the traffic on the bridge since before DOT’s plan was even announced in December. While the MTA and DOT have held dozens of public meetings about the shutdown over the last several years, including two highly-publicized town hall meetings in May that largely focused on the Manhattan bike lanes and 14th Street busway hours, some experts have continued to warn that the biggest flaw is the lack of a bus-only lane on the bridge and its approaches. Yet transit authorities have never publicly discussed a bus lane on the bridge in any detail.

“We don’t believe [DOT has] done a sufficiently rigorous study that that road won’t be totally congested,” Hook tells the Voice. In January, Hook co-authored a study on the mitigation plan, which was released in partnership with Transportation Alternatives. The analysis concluded there are significant gaps: Although DOT will put in some form of bus lanes on key bridge approaches, the bus lanes owill not have turning restrictions for other vehicles, which will clog the lane as they wait for pedestrians to cross. Also, the two bus routes from the Bedford Avenue L train stop will have to connect to the bridge via Roebling Street and Bedford Avenue, which will have no bus-only lanes.

“In my view, they’re trying to come up with a proposal with middle ground,” Hook surmises regarding DOT’s mitigation plan. He adds that DOT’s analysis did not formally model more aggressive plans, such as a longer busway in Manhattan extending along most of the 14th Street bus route instead of just from Third to Eighth avenues. “They should approach it from a technical perspective. How are they going to do this?”

Painfully slow bus speeds would be a worst-case scenario for everybody involved. Frustrated commuters would abandon the buses for other modes of transit, such as nearby subways or ferries — which are already projected to be at or above capacity during the shutdown. Even more catastrophically, others may resort to app-based services such as UberPool, Lyft Line, and Chariot to meet the HOV-3 restriction, which will only exacerbate the traffic problems on the bridge.

The traffic mess is further complicated the Williamsburg Bridge’s peculiar layout. The bridge has eight lanes of traffic, four in each direction. Above the river, those four lanes split into inner and outer two-lane segments. The lanes on the bridge are narrow, so buses will need to straddle multiple lanes (as some commercial vehicles already do). Further, because of height and weight restrictions on the inner segments, buses and trucks (along with vehicles making right turns after the bridge) will be directed to the outer lanes during the shutdown. If the lanes are too narrow for commercial vehicles and buses to coexist side by side, the outer segments could essentially become one-lane roads, while ride-share vehicles and small commercial vans would have the inner lanes all to themselves.

DOT officials indicate that the narrow bridge lanes are one reason dedicated bus lanes were rejected: If buses take up double lanes, that would mean removing cars from half of the bridge. But Hook says the only places the lanes are too narrow are at a pair of “choke points” by the towers, and the lanes could safely merge there to allow buses priority without completely stopping car traffic in the adjacent lane.

Patafio emphasized the need not only for dedicated bus lanes on the bridge, but for turn-restricted lanes leading up to the bridge itself. This would keep buses moving in otherwise congested areas while also making enforcement easier, as police could pull any vehicles that aren’t buses out of those lanes before they get on the bridge. (It remains an open question exactly how enforcement of the HOV-3 restriction will work under the DOT plan.)

This would also be an inexpensive solution. Patafio, a former Brooklyn bus operator, cited a recent successful trial in Boston that converted a parking lane into a 1.2-mile bus lane using only traffic cones and a few signs. A run time that could previously take up to a half-hour for buses to traverse was shaved down to ten minutes or fewer. (The city has since made the lane permanent.) He sees a similar model working well during the shutdown, especially since it can be deployed quickly if and when all parties involved agree that it’s necessary.

***

As with when the city released its traffic analysis for 14th Street, the HOV-3 solution appears to be an attempt at a middle ground between Doing Everything and Doing Nothing — when the L train shutdown is such a nightmare scenario that we need to do everything, or close to it, to make it remotely manageable.

Patafio knows that more bus-only lanes would result in uproar from drivers, as well as from businesses that might not be able to get deliveries as conveniently. But he views this as a necessary evil during the biggest transit challenge the city has faced in years.

When many subways were shut down following Hurricane Sandy, he notes, the MTA implemented free shuttle bus service from Brooklyn to Manhattan. The lines for the buses stretched for blocks, but DOT established dedicated bus lanes on the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges to keep them moving.

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Patafio believes a similar all-in effort is necessary for the L shutdown: “If they don’t give us what they got in Manhattan on 14th Street and they don’t put it in Brooklyn and make some hard decisions, then I think you’re gonna have a whole shitload of traffic.”

Councilmember Antonio Reynoso, who represents Williamsburg and Bushwick, recalls that a bus-only lane across the bridge was “one of the first things we asked” DOT about the shutdown plan. He says DOT assured him the HOV-3 restriction would reduce traffic enough that a busway won’t be necessary. He’s trusting DOT on that, at least until the shutdown begins and he can see for himself. But, he adds, DOT told him there are contingencies in place in case things don’t go according to plan, and one such contingency may be a bus lane.

Nevertheless, Reynoso is reminding himself to be calm and work with the powers that be to create the best plan for his community and the city as a whole. “The first week, maybe a month, are going to be a disaster,” Reynoso cautions, as everybody adjusts to their L train–less reality. “I don’t think any of us are prepared for how significant this is going to be.”

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THE FRONT ARCHIVES Transit

Yes, Those Are Zipcar and Enterprise Logos on Parking Signs

New Yorkers are used to squinting up at signs that spell out the city’s myriad parking regulations — no standing, no stopping, no parking during alternate side regulations. Even for the roughly 55 percent of New York households that don’t own a car, the thousands of parking signs scattered around the city are part of the ubiquitous backdrop of urban life.

Lately, though, Department of Transportation parking signage has been contributing to another increasingly ubiquitous phenomenon: the use of public space for advertising and corporate promotion.

The signage comes courtesy of a new two-year pilot program that has taken 285 city parking spaces scattered across every borough but Staten Island out of public circulation and reserved them for vehicles from the car-sharing companies Zipcar and Enterprise CarShare, which allow people to rent cars by the hour. The parking signs for these newly designated spots, which went up in early June, read “Carshare Parking Only, Others No Standing Anytime” in the DOT’s familiar typeface — but they’re also emblazoned with the corporate logos of the two companies, an apparently unprecedented development for city traffic signage. (A DOT spokesperson did not respond to repeated Voice inquiries about the signs.)

The idea behind the city’s car-share parking program is that many New Yorkers who own cars only use them for occasional errands or to visit Mom out on Long Island every other Tuesday. These drivers may be willing to sell their cars, and thereby avoid all the hassle and expense of parking, maintenance, gas, and insurance — while possibly reducing the number of cars on city streets, as people may also opt to use mass transit once they no longer own cars — if they have access to a car-share service.

Until now, car-share companies have housed their fleets in large parking garages, many of which are inconveniently situated. The new dedicated car-share parking spots are designed to allow some of these cars to be “stored” curbside, which in turn will make it easier for people to use a car-share vehicle — and, the city hopes, get more people to give up full-time car ownership. If that works out during the two-year trial period, the program will be expanded to an unspecified larger number of spaces in 2020.

All of that sounds like a worthy goal. But couldn’t it have been achieved without putting the corporate logos of two for-profit companies on the signs? The parking spaces are company-specific, so the businesses’ names need to be shown on the signs, but couldn’t that have been done in the DOT’s standard typeface? As it stands now, the signs essentially give the city’s municipal imprimatur to corporate advertising.

It’s part of a larger problem of ad-free space disappearing from our lives, as every available surface or asset becomes a conduit for corporate branding. The city’s transportation system has been particularly fertile ground for this type of ad creep. Our bike-share program doubles as a promotional campaign for Citibank, and last year Governor Andrew Cuomo and the MTA floated the idea of selling off naming rights to subway stations. These public/private comminglings are invariably described as “sponsorships” or “partnerships” — friendly-seeming terms that suggest comity rather than commerce — but they’re really just another form of advertising.

These forms of corporate-branded municipal advertising can quickly become a self-reinforcing habit. Case in point: Domino’s Pizza recently announced that it would provide funds for towns to fill potholes — provided they used a Domino’s-branded truck and spray-painted a Domino’s ad onto each filled hole. The city manager of a Delaware town defended his decision to accept the Domino’s deal, explaining, “Delaware prides itself on being a low-tax state, a policy that has attracted residents who expect excellent services with few, if any, tax increases.”

Granted, it’s more than a few steps from a Zipcar logo on a parking sign to pizza-branded infrastructure repair, but it’s all part of the same continuum of creeping corporatocracy. If you’re going to sell off naming rights to subway stations, why not do the same to Central Park, or the Manhattan Bridge, or City Hall?

I realize this all sounds like a lot of crankiness over a fairly small thing, and I also realize that the car-share program has its virtues. But there’s a reason we have zoning laws to restrict where businesses can have a presence, and there’s a reason we regulate where billboards can appear. It’s because we understand that there’s a difference, and often a gap, between business interests and the public interest. It’s hard enough to maintain the wall of separation between the two without DOT signage chipping away at it.

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THE FRONT ARCHIVES Transit

An Elegy for the Sublimely Crappy Chambers Street Subway Station

Voice transit reporter Aaron Gordon will be appearing Thursday night at 6 p.m. at an AIA New York panel on infrastructure and waste, a topic on which he knows a little something. To mark the occasion, we’re running an essay that is adapted from Gordon’s free weekly transit newsletter Signal Problems, which you can sign up for here.

“Too often, life in New York is merely a squalid succession of days; whereas in fact it can be a great, living adventure.” —Fiorello La Guardia

Shortly after I moved to New York, I took my camera out to do some shooting. This photo is the only one I kept from that day. It’s not a particularly good photo — I didn’t get the lighting or framing quite right — but I’m nevertheless fond of it. Every once in a while, when I’m feeling particularly down, I pull it up and look at it for a few seconds. It makes me smile, because it looks like how New York makes me feel.

On the one hand, there’s so much beauty and potential here. Look at that ornate, delicate mosaic or the clear, colorful Brooklyn Bridge design that’s still splendid from across the platform. The lettering on “CHAMBERS ST.” gleams even under the shabby lighting as if creating its own luminescence. Somebody once cared about this station, about this place, as something more than just a stop on a journey.

On the other hand, there was the office chair — which, it’s worth noting, was on an unused subway station platform for some reason; coincidentally, it’s the same model I had in my house as a kid. Its broken wheels and torn fabric collected layers of dust thick enough to bury Pizza Rat. The white tile above it, once clean and glistening, now looked like the teeth of a chain-smoking coffee drinker dipping into his late fifties. The yellow tiles around the border may or may not have always been yellow, it’s hard to tell; but in any case they were now a sickly dehydrated urine color.

I return to this photo, I think, because it is the subway. Someone once cared about it enough to make it not just functional but beautiful, the kind of art you could stare at like a museum spectator. But somewhere along the line, we stopped bothering. The mosaics went uncleaned — notice the discoloration, most notably the “E” in “CHAMBERS” — the tile fell into a state of disrepair, and someone left an office chair. I have no idea how long it was there before I took this photo, but judging by the dust it was not a short amount of time. For months, if not years, nobody could be bothered.

It’s no coincidence that, when the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story on the subway’s disrepair, the photographer went to Chambers Street to document the station’s dilapidation. When the MTA announced some other station was getting the Enhanced Station Initiative treatment, the constant refrain from transit advocates and MTA board members alike has been “What about Chambers Street?” In a system overrun with tubby rats, crumbling tiles, elaborate water damage, and grime thick enough to grow its own grime, Chambers Street was the undisputed poster station of the system’s decay. It is crumbling.

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Yet, in the very deep recesses of my conscience, I secretly hoped they wouldn’t fix Chambers Street.

I don’t mean this in an “I actually like things to be incredibly shitty, thank you very much” kind of way. I know the line between nostalgic and cranky is thin and typically in the eyes of the beholder, but I’m not nostalgic about Bad Chambers Street. I want them to fix it eventually, just maybe not until they fix the rest of the subway, too. I don’t want it to become a dishonest visual metaphor, in which the MTA claims, We cleaned up Chambers Street so everything’s cool now. In fact, I fear this will be the exact outcome when they do clean up Chambers Street later this year.

I guess I really buried the lede here: They’re cleaning up Chambers Street. I’m sure it will look nice and I’ll appreciate the mosaic work that much more along with all the other benefits that come with not being damp mold–adjacent. It will be better.

And here, I’m so sorry, I’m going to be insufferable for a second and channel my inner Jeremiah Moss: I have a vaguely irrational sentimentality for this monument to decrepitude. The city is increasingly becoming viscerally dull. Identical glass towers in Manhattan rent storefronts to the same several hundred chain stores. Yuppie boxes in the outer boroughs have architectural renderings that rarely consist of anything more than a 3-D rectangle with sad balconies. Most coffee shops feel like the physical embodiment of five white guys sitting around a table talking about Brands. Bars can either be described as bro-y or rich hipster (I assume there are tiers above this I really cannot afford), and that’s the long and short of it.

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The point isn’t to lament what the city is becoming — which a lot of people like, and has its virtues — but merely to notice it. And so I appreciate Chambers Street’s existence in this way, even if I don’t have strictly positive feelings toward it, because I like when a city reflects its people. Some people are not shiny icons to a new era of prosperity. Some people, like Chambers Street, are barely holding it together.

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THE FRONT ARCHIVES Transit

Cuomo’s LaGuardia AirTrain Looks Like a $1.5 Billion Boondoggle

Governor Cuomo and the Port Authority announced Monday that they’re moving forward with the LaGuardia AirTrain, which is intended to provide a much-desired rail connection between LaGuardia Airport and civilization.

Since the project was first proposed in 2015, its cost has soared from $450 million to a projected $1.5 billion before a single shovel has sunk into the ground. Nevertheless, Cuomo bragged at a Monday press conference that the AirTrain will allow people to travel between the airport and midtown in “thirty minutes or less,” which a Cuomo slide breaks down as sixteen minutes to take the LIRR from Penn Station (or Grand Central, if and when East Side Access is completed), then six minutes on the AirTrain from Willets Point to LaGuardia. The Port Authority projects the AirTrain will run every four minutes, and will also connect to the 7 train at the Mets-Willets Point station.

But the more one digs into the plan, the more it seems like a boondoggle in progress. The “30 minutes or less” vow only applies if you take the LIRR, since the 7 takes about 33 minutes itself to get from Grand Central to Willets Point. Further, Willets Point currently only gets LIRR service when Citi Field is holding events such as Mets games; and even when it does get service, it’s on the Port Washington LIRR branch which has thirty-minute headways during off-peak hours. If they’re heading to the airport outside of rush hour, then, the vast majority of travelers won’t get there in “30 minutes or less” unless they happen to arrive at the platform just as one of the two trains per hour pulls into the station.

It’s certainly possible LIRR could start providing regular train service to Willets Point, and also increase the frequency of trains, once the AirTrain is completed. But so far the railroad has not publicly committed to it, perhaps because of additional complicating factors. The Port Washington branch runs on a single track past Great Neck for the last three stops on the line, which means no trains can travel eastbound past Great Neck until the previous train has headed back out westbound. During peak hours, trains short-turn at Great Neck to allow about six trains per hour to run in the peak direction. The railroad could probably do this outside of peak hours to allow a greater frequency; the LIRR did not reply to Voice queries by publication time.

The bigger question, though, is how many riders would opt for the LIRR in the first place when the 7 train is there as an alternative. The MTA is currently in the final stages of installing a modern communications system on the 7 line and projects that, when it’s completed at the end of this year, it will run 29 trains per hour on that line, or a train about every two minutes. Even though the 7 takes some fifteen minutes longer to get from Willets Point to midtown than the LIRR, it will be cheaper — currently, a single ride on the subway is $2.75 while a one-way LIRR trip is $6.25 off-peak or $8.75 during peak hours — and more reliable. The LIRR would then need to decide if it’s the best use of the railroad’s money to run more frequent service on the Port Washington line just to accommodate the few passengers who may opt to take it to the AirTrain.

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So forget the LIRR connection for now. Is the AirTrain, merely as a means of connecting to the 7, worth building? Again, it’s hard to see how. As transit analyst Yonah Freemark wrote three years ago, “transit travel times from LaGuardia to destinations throughout New York City…would be longer for passengers using the AirTrain than for passengers using existing transit services already offered by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.”

How is that possible? Going off Cuomo’s numbers, the new connection would provide a six-minute AirTrain ride on top of a 33-minute subway ride from Grand Central. That’s 39 minutes of pure train-riding time. Add in about five minutes of combined wait time and a few minutes for transferring between the two, and you’re looking at a good 45 minutes from Grand Central to LaGuardia via the AirTrain.

But many people don’t end their journeys at Grand Central or Penn Station — and this, in a nutshell, is the AirTrain’s biggest flaw. Most travelers don’t want to end their journeys in midtown, but that’s where the 7 train goes. And that’s why Freemark’s analysis found that existing travel options stack up just fine against the $1.5 billion AirTrain.

For example, the Q70 Select Bus Service provides an eleven-minute nonstop round trip every seven to ten minutes during most of the day from LaGuardia, not just to the 7 train, but to the E, F, M, and R in Jackson Heights as well. From there, it’s only three stops to Manhattan on the E/F (which, by the way, runs express all the time, not just one-way express during peak hours like the 7). The M60 SBS runs on a similar timetable, connecting the airport to the 1, B, C, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, N, and W trains along its route in Queens and upper Manhattan. Even with the AirTrain, these two bus routes will remain a faster and cheaper option to many Manhattan, Bronx, and Queens destinations. (While Brooklyn is currently poorly served by public transit connections to LaGuardia, the AirTrain will do nothing to help.)

If Cuomo were truly interested in improving access to and from LaGuardia — not that this is the point of flashy infrastructure projects — he would spend a tiny fraction of the $1.5 billion projected for the AirTrain on bolstering the existing buses by ensuring dedicated and unblocked bus lanes on the entire route, increasing frequency of service, and adding new routes.

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But even if Cuomo is dead set on building something that runs on tracks, there are a few other options. One is to revisit the long-discussed N train extension to LaGuardia, which would at least provide a one-seat ride into Manhattan and Brooklyn even if, according to Freemark, it still wouldn’t reduce travel times by a significant margin. That proposal has consistently been met with opposition from local residents who don’t want more elevated tracks, and has therefore been largely regarded as a political nonstarter.

Speaking of political nonstarters, the only way to significantly decrease travel times for LaGuardia customers would be a dedicated express train from a major midtown hub such as Grand Central. But such a project is bound to be prohibitively expensive given New York City tunneling costs; you’d likely be looking at $3 billion just to dig a tunnel and install tracks, assuming Second Avenue Subway rates, but the actual price tag would almost certainly be much larger than that when factoring in other necessities like a station and trains. It would be hard to justify such a price tag against other municipal transit needs, considering LaGuardia transported 29.7 million passengers last year, or about a week’s worth of subway ridership.

But the most galling aspect of the AirTrain is that, despite popping up from time to time over the past few years with bright new renderings, there has been little in the way of public debate over the project.

“It is terrible public policy for the state to be moving ahead so quickly on this project with little public input and no conversations about alternatives,” Freemark writes in an email to the Voice, noting that last week the state legislature passed a law allowing the Port Authority to seize public land for the project. Maybe there really is political will for an express train from Grand Central, or perhaps deals can be made to make the N extension a reality, which at the very least is obviously preferable to the AirTrain. Either way, unless there’s a public process to discuss alternatives, we will never know. As Freemark puts it: “That’s a bad way to run a project of this cost.”