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.


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.

From The Archives Neighborhoods NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

7 Days: The City Below

When Adam Moss stepped down as editor of New York magazine last month, it marked the end of an era. Since taking the helm of the august title in 2004, Moss had helped set the industry standard for magazine journalism, documenting the life of the city in all its highbrow, lowbrow, brilliant, and despicable glory. 

Of course, as dedicated media-watchers know, much of the New York‘s DNA was apparent three decades ago, when Moss emerged from Manhattan’s media landscape as the 30-year-old wunderkind behind the much-loved, short-lived 7 Days magazine. Published by then-Voice owner Leonard Stern for two years bridging the ’80s and ’90s, 7 Days was a glorious failure, bleeding money, but minting the reputations for a generation of fledgling journalists

Flipping through the 7 Days archives today is an exercise in delightful discovery. There’s Jeffrey Toobin writing about the Yankees, long before he became the lead legal analyst for the New Yorker; future best-selling author Meg Wolitzer (The Wife) writing the weekly crossword puzzle; a regular magazine-watching column from fellow future best-selling author Walter Kirn (Up in the Air); Peter Schjeldahl covering the arts scene; Joan Acocella on dance. 

Over the next week, we here at the Voice archives will be sharing some of these treasures from the vault. Welcome to seven days of 7 Days

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December 6, 1989

Open Up a Manhole and Jump Right In

Imagine grabbing Manhattan by the Empire State Building and pulling the en­tire island up by its roots. Imagine shaking it. Imagine millions of wires and hundreds of thousands of cables freeing themselves from great hunks of rock and tons of musty and polluted dirt. Imagine a sewer system and a set of water lines each three times as long as the Hudson River. Picture mysterious little vaults hidden just beneath the crust of the sidewalk, a sweaty grid of steam pipes 103 miles long, a turn-of-the-18th-century merchant ship buried under Front Street, rusty old natural-gas lines that could be wrapped 23 times around Manhattan, and huge, bombproof concrete tubes that descend almost 80 stories into the ground.

It’s all down there: the planned and the un­planned, the infrastructure and the archaeological sur­prises. There are old pneu­matic tubes that once moved letters around the city; snapping turtles swimming in the sewers; and a six-lane highway built in the late 1960s un­derneath the subway at Chrystie Street, then sealed, abandoned, and forgotten. There’s a city beneath the streets, but most New Yorkers don’t bother themselves with it, until a steam pipe explodes and kills three people in Gramercy Park, as one did in August, or a water main breaks and flushes shut the Eighth Avenue subway, as one did in September. Even in those dramatic cases, even when the newspapers fill their pages with graphs and charts, people only get a neat little outline — a me­ticulous diagram of a slop­py bowl of linguine. Com­puter graphics are too calculated to capture the randomness of the world beneath the avenues. Ab­stract Impressionists would do better.

The world beneath Man­hattan is a cake of endless layers, a foundation as deep as the Chrysler Build­ing is high. On the top lies a 3-inch strip of asphalt. Next comes almost 10 inches of coarse concrete. After that, soil, a nasty soil that soaks up chemicals from the street. In another inch or 3 come the wires — ­telephone and electric, streetlight and fire alarm, and, the newest addition, cable TV — all buried in casings and kept close to the curbs. Gas lines puff away another foot below; water mains gurgle 4 feet under; steam pipes are.buried 6 feet deep. Every sewer pipe is different (they’re installed at an angle so that sewage is always flowing down), but they’re generally above the vaults of the subways, which vary in depth from a few dozen inches (the Lex­ington Avenue line) to 18 stories below St. Nicholas Av­enue (191st Street on the Broadway local). Water tun­nels — running between 200 and 800 feet — mark the farthest reach of the underground.

Every so often, there are the scares. In the ’70s, for example, before cleaning up asbestos became a profit­able business, New Yorkers were worrying about red lead paint on their water pipes. But somehow, in its hodgepodge way, the underground keeps pumping and flowing and growing. It never gives out.

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“A lot of water leaks are caused by city borings,” says the water department’s Doug Greeley. “A contractor went through an 18-inch gas line with a backhoe,” says Con Ed’s Bob Greis. “We’ve dug in some places with spoons,” says Ed Moloney, an engineer with Vollmer Associates, a firm known for its knowledge of the underground.

Moloney, a kind-faced Irishman dressed in shirt ­sleeves and a tie, knows better than most how crowded it is down there. He helped engineer the Van Wyck Ex­pressway, the Cross Bronx, and. the Grand Central Parkway, and by the end of the ’50s was working on a daily basis with Robert Moses’ office. In the late ’60s, Moloney signed on with Arnold Vollmer, an engineer and landscape architect whose firm had become familiar with buried cables and wires after digging thousands of holes for the city’s sidewalk trees. At Vollmer, Moloney set out to document the path of each and every utility beneath the 2,000 or so intersections from 60th Street south to the Battery. He came up with a system for mea­suring the density of utility lines, representing the least dense areas with green, more dense areas with yellow, and those stuffed completely with red. And what did he find? “A lot of red,” he says, “particularly in lower Manhattan.”

Moloney’s expertise is so widely known that the FBI once called him to find out if terrorists might make use of the sewers, say, to rough up Fidel Castro while he was speaking at the United Nations. Moloney figured that, yes, it was possible, but the terrorists would have to bring their own air and pray for clear weather. Rain, Moloney told the agents, would surely wash out an attack.

When Moloney and his colleagues at Vollmer are hired to plan a new installation underground, the first thing they do is sift through the archives: Con Ed maps, phone-company maps, and utility maps drawn during the New Deal. Next, they dig a couple of test pits — espe­cially in the tighter areas — to see if what’s supposed to be there is actually there. “Now you know what should be under there,” Moloney says. “But you ask, How does this gas main run from this valve to that valve? Does it go straight or up and down? From our experience we have a good intuition of how they’re laid.” At some points in the city, pipes and wires and ducts are packed 30 and 40 feet thick. That’s when Moloney and his crew really start to worry about hitting something and break out the spoons.


“Here, men from Wall Street and famous producers live,” says Raj Patel, pointing from the base of the Central Park Reservoir toward Fifth Avenue’s apartment buildings, “and over there lives Jackie Ken­nedy. But no, they don’t know how it works. If you don’t go downstairs, you don’t know.”

That said, Patel lifts a carpet in the middle of the Cen­tral Park Reservoir’s pumping station, pulls open a heavy steel grate, and climbs down the century-and-a­quarter-old steel spiral staircase. Patel seems a small man to be controlling the two huge water mains that run down Madison and Fifth Avenues, but his is the perfect size for crawling between the pipes that inject chlorine in the water and the regulators that measure the quality of the 70 million gallons that rush through these 48-inch pipes every day. He weaves his tour around the pipes and through the old brick-lined tunnels while talking about the city’s flow.

“It is very heavy in the morning between 6 and 8 o’clock,” he says, pointing to the small electric meters. At 12:15 in the afternoon, the Madison Avenue line reg­isters a jump of a few thousand gallons. Maybe a few hundred people just flushed somewhere on the Lower East Side. Maybe a lot of people are home fixing lunch.

“New York is very lucky,” Patel says, in an accent half British, half Indian. “Ninety percent of its water is supplied by gravity.” For a long time, New York wasn’t so lucky. Until the 1700s, water was drawn mainly from one spring-fed pond. Population and industrial growth ruined a good clean thing (the dead cats and dogs people threw into the pond didn’t help either), so Aaron Burr built a reservoir near what is now Chambers Street and laid about 5 miles of hollowed-out tree trunks (many of which are still in place) to carry the water underground.

But Burr’s water wasn’t very tasty, and the city set out to import its supply. In the summer of 1842, a thou­sand thirsty citizens cheered as water from the upstate Croton Reservoir rolled down a 33-mile tunnel to the holding reservoir built at 42nd and Fifth, on the site of today’s public library. One hundred years later the city finished two more 15-foot-wide water tunnels from the Delaware and Catskill watersheds.

Doug Greeley is the Department of Environmental Protection’s man in charge of plugging up leaks in the roughly 6,000 miles of water mains that run under the city today. Once, city workers created leaks on pur­pose. “In the old days, when there was a fire the firemen would dig down till they hit an old wooden water main, chop a hole in it, use the water, and then plug it up when they were finished,” says Greeley.

Since tree-trunk watet pipes have been abandoned, the city relies primarily on cast-iron mains to carry its water. Most of the time, things go relatively well, con­sidering the number of joints that could possibly leak. “We like to think of ourselves — and I’m not trying to rip off the Navy, but they call us the silent service,” he says. “No one thinks about water mains as long as they work.”

Water mains leak about 5,000 times a year and break about 500 times. The latter are the ones that tend to make the headlines, and their causes mostly have to do with the very unmysterious trends of age and wear. “They take a beating in New York,” says Vollmer’s Ed Moloney. “There’s lots of traffic, and trucks are pound­ing the pavement from up top. And then below, you have the continuous vibrations of the subways.”

“When those mains were installed, you had horse-and-buggies out there,” says Thomas Cowan, who manages Con Ed’s gas-engineering division. “Now you’ve got tractor trailors.”

As for the leaks, some of the water gets into basements, but most goes into the sewers. So when Doug Greeley’s team’s not busy with a break, they look for leaks, either with electrical current sent through fire hydrants or with micro­phones that listen for the hiss of stray water. There are distractions (“You get affected by buses honking their horns, by subways, and in some cases you get af­fected by high heels walking down the street,” Greeley says), but they only need to get within a few feet. With the microphones, they’ve been known to come within a few eighths of an inch.

When all else fails, and when the water just keeps on coming, Greeley’s team turns to the single map that probably decorates the office walls of more underground technicians than any other — Eg­bert L. Viele’s 1874 Topographical At­las. The Water Map, as it is better known in underground circles, shows all the streams, ponds, and rivers that in many cases still flow underneath the streets of the city.

Water-main leaks sometimes follow old stream beds and show up a few blocks away, or the old streams themselves sometimes show up. Minetta Brook is an example. It used to run from Sixth Ave­nue at 16th Street through Washington Square and into the Village. A couple of years ago it made a brief comeback in a basement in the West Village.


“Watch the ladder,” say Joseph Iacono, the superintendent of emergency operations for Con Edison’s Manhattan division, from underneath First Avenue. At the bottom of the vault he’s standing in is an oil-filled, fireproof transformer bringing power for the neighborhood down to a manageable 13,500 volts. “You talk about Toledo, Ohio, and a cou­ple of poles and some wires,” Iacono says, “But it doesn’t work that way here.”

The electricity humming peacefully along in front of him has traveled a long way from the waters of Canada, from the atoms split at Indian Point, or from vari­ous other generators in northern New England. It zips at the speed of light over high-tension lines and dives under­ground just north of Manhattan. There, the electrons are bumped up to a cool 138,000 volts before moving on to trans­formers (like the one Iacono’s standing in) in one of Manhattan’s 31 networks. Power comes down again to 120 volts by the time it gets to the average home or office, but not before passing through a manhole somewhere.

Manholes can leak, rats can chew, and the splicers who climb down to han­dle 1,500-degree soldering irons may have to work in temperatures as sweaty as 100 degrees. But one wrong nibble by some hungry rat, one splicer screwup, one small fluctuation in the flow of pow­er, and Manhattan gets mad.

“It may be as little as 5 cycles,” says Richard Peck, Con Ed’s chief electrical distribution engineer, explaining that there are 60 cycles in a second’s worth of electrical travel. “But that’s enough for these computer outfits on Wall Street. Sometimes they know about it as fast as we do.”

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Robert Greis, the man who ma­ages Con Ed’s gas-operations division, uses a flattened web of copper wiring as a paperweight on his desk. The copper was melted, he says, by a couple of thou­sand volts of electricity, and it burned right through a cast-iron gas main, ne­cessitating one of the 6,500 annual gas­pipe repairs Con Ed sees to annually — ­between 30,400 emergency calls and 30,000 inspections — in Manhattan.

On his way to one of those repairs, Greis mentions that five years ago, 14 percent of the gas Manhattan imported via pipeline from Texas and Louisiana just sort of disappeared, vanished into the air. Flame ionization units are to­day’s best defense against leaking gas: backpack-size gas detectors that test air samples by burning them. They are so successful, in fact, that in 1989 losses have dropped to 5 percent.

Today’s leak was caused by a tired old pipe joint. It was discovered by a con­cerned citizen named J.R. Thomas. Three years ago, Thomas drove Greis and his mechanics crazy by calling in reports of gas leaks just about every day. And he wouldn’t just say he smelled gas in his kitchen: he’d phone about entire city blocks. When a citizen calls, Con Ed has to dig, so mechanics would spend days drilling test borings around each and every one of the blocks Thomas suspected. Just as water leaks are tricky, a bad gas leak can be hard to find. “We’ll have gas in a manhole and find out that the leak is two blocks away,” Greis says.

So after a few months of daily tele­phone calls and the corresponding required inspections, Con Ed finally asked Thomas about his methodology. Turned out he doesn’t even use his nose; he pinpoints gas leaks by studying varia­tions in the color of a building’s facade. Despite his unorthodox methods and the sarcastic mumbles from the guys forced to dig near every poorly painted building on the Upper East Side, Con Ed pays at­tention to his calls. “We can’t ignore him,” Greis says. “He has a 14 percent hit ratio.”

Back in the middle of the 19th century, there were about 15 different gas com­panies in New York, and they each had their own gas mains. Since 1970, Con Ed has retired 50,000 feet of old mains. But what does it do with them? Mostly leave them where they are — although the old­est working ones date from 1874. “A lot of other services will run lines through abandoned mains ’cause they’re the only thing left in town,” Greis says.

The lines that Greis’ crew first run into are definitely not their own and definite­ly not on their maps. Because they are buried in a shallow main and seem relatively new, the crew’s best guess is that they’re cable-TV lines. Next, they paint Con Ed’s signature blue on the street (“If the road depresses, they’ll know who to come after,” Greis says), then jackham­mer a little, and afterward vacuum the dirt from around their tired, leaky joint.

With a trench so small and tools so sur­gically efficient, the whole operation looks more like a visit to the dentist than pipe repair. In a matter of minutes, the joint is sealed with a hard rubber cover and a bucket of sealant. A cast-iron pipe old enough to be a grandfather becomes as good as new, at least for these few feet. “Technology, in the area of natural gas, anyway, has improved a lot in the last few years,” Greis says, driving off down Fifth Avenue in his blue-and-white van.


“There are a whole lot of geologi­cal provinces that come together in New York City,” says John Sanders, geologist at Columbia University, speaking of the rocky world underneath Manhattan’s pipes and wires. “There are at least three major different kinds of geological stuff that focus here.” We’re talking real un­derground now. We’re talking farther than humans have ever dug. We’re talk­ing about the rocks that hold up Manhat­tan, about the faults that run under Dyckman Street, the Harlem River, 125th Street, and the East River. We’re talking about Manhattan schist.

Schist is what they call the bedrock in which the World Trade Center and all of midtown’s skyscrapers are rooted. No­tice, Sanders says, that skyscrapers don’t live in Chelsea: there the schist bur­rows deep underground. Basically it rises up in Central Park, stays there through midtown, then runs down to about 100 feet below the surface about halfway between the Battery and Canal Street. It’s just high enough again for the World Trade Center to stand, but there are no skyscrapers at the bottom of the Bowery. What works better there are sewers. In fact, the sewer once billed as the New World’s largest was built in the swampy area between the mouth of the Holland Tunnel and the foot of the Man­hattan Bridge. For a long while, it con­nected the city’s two rivers until it was paved over and became known as Canal Street.

Archaeologists in Manhattan still bump into remnants of the old canals when they’re digging underground. They bump into the old locks and ship slips too, especially near the southern tip of Broad Street, which used to be all wa­ter. One archaeologist even bumped into a boat from the late 17th century. “It didn’t surprise me that we hit wood,” re­members Joan Geismar, an archaeolo­gist who was excavating the site. “It sur­prised me that the wood turned out to be a 25-foot-wide and 92-foot-long ship.”

The bow of the ship is now sitting in a Newport News museum, but the stern still lies buried under Front Street’s utili­ty cables. Toward the end of the 17th century, Geismar says, developers leased unused boat slips from the city, docked their worn-out boats and loaded them with junk, then sunk them. A good per­centage of lower Manhattan is landfill, and a good percentage of the landfill is boats.

“You can stand there and tell people about it, but when you have an actual ship and you pull it out of the muck, it really blows their minds,” says Ed Rutsch.

Rutsch, an urban and industrial ar­chaeologist, has all but nailed down the whereabouts of the wall they named the financial district for. He caught a glimpse of it while digging near 60 Wall St. Of course, the middles of city streets are generally out of bounds to archaeolo­gists, who work mainly at the mercy of history-minded developers and the zon­ing board’s variance requirements.

But Rutsch has been able to put to­gether a picture of the palisade that stood some 300 years ago — a long row of tall sticks designed to keep out at­tackers. He has found 200-year-old coins and once came pretty close to Alexander Hamilton’s latrine. Latrines and privies, by the way, are generally considered archaeological gold mines in Manhattan. “When you lose something in one,” Rutsch points out, “you do a minimum of feeling around.”

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Talk long enough to the engineers, the archaeologists, the repair crews, and invariably they start to tell stories: weird incidents, bizarre findings. There’s the story about the engineers who, near the intersection of Bowery and Canal, accidentally discovered a small hidden room decorated with mirrors on its walls and ceilings. There’s the story about the tunnel diggers who ran into a 10,000-year-old standing forest buried 200 feet beneath the Upper West Side. A mud slide or glacier probably buried it, and the workers who discovered it had to use chain saws to cut it down.

There’s the story about how many dump-truck runs it took to haul off the dirt dug to make room for Grand Central: 400 runs a day for a little less than five years. There’s the one about a horse that fell into a sewer and a few minutes later appeared on the shore of the harbor, and the one about the four boys who almost fell in a sewer themselves when, on Feb­ruary 10, 1935, they pulled out a 125-pound alligator.

There are the structures that were closed, or never built, or built and never opened: dozens of public rest rooms be­low the theater district haven’t relieved a customer in years; a City Hall subway station has been retired, too short to host a modern train; a downtown trolley ter­minal has been closed, though it’s still visible under Essex Street on the J Line. In a cabinet somewhere there are plans for a triple-decker subway-and-car tun­nel, complete with a glass ceiling de­signed to double as a Broadway side­walk. And Mrs. Henry J. Hibshman still remembers her late husband’s unreal­ized energy-crisis scheme to pump water deep into the city’s cold ground and draw it back up to cool buildings in the sum­mer. A PATH-train tunnel ends only a few dozen feet from where it starts in Greenwich Village, still distant from its once-intended destination, Astor Place. A private entrance several stories below the Waldorf once allowed President Franklin D. Roosevelt secret passage to trains carrying him to Hyde Park. And escalators in buildings along Water Street still wait patiently for the Second Avenue subway line to be finished.

In 1912, the workers digging the BMT accidentally discovered the city’s first subway line, 42 years after it was closed and forgotten. A 312-foot-long, 9-foot­wide pneumatic tube, it was built by Al­fred Ely Beach, inventor and an editor of Scientific American, who furnished its frescoed waifing room with a chandelier and a grand piano. For a few weeks in 1870, a 100-horsepower fan blew Beach’s primitive subway cars through a tube 21 feet below Broadway between Warren and Murray Streets until Boss Tweed shut it down.

Then there are the people — the long­time engineers, the eccentric citizens, the Italians who dig for Con Edison, and the Irish who build the tunnels. Teddy May was a subway official who liked to walk the tracks for pleasure on Sunday afternoons, often with a potato in his pocket to ward off back pains. Smelly Kelly, the famous Transit Authority leak finder, made his reputation sniffing out eels from a pipe in the bathroom of one subway station and elephant dung in the tunnel near another. Six hundred volts from the third rail, goes his story, just barely knocked him down.


Surrounded by picks and shovels, tired old iron rails, and thousands of volts of electricity, Clarence Cook is worried about only one thing. “I’m not afraid of walking on the track,” he says, “and I’m not afraid of the third rail. I’m just afraid of meeting some stranger in here. That’s the scariest part, especially when you’re alone. I think some of these criminals know the system better than you do, and so there are certain areas that I just don’t like to walk by myself. Like between 28th and Canal on the Lex. That’s where you meet ’em. They don’t usually trouble you, but it’s just a bad thing.”

Commuters ride the subways, crimi­nals stash loot in them, and the homeless live in them. Between May of 1988 and May of 1989, 43 homeless people died in the subway system. A month ago, on a balmy November day, there were 750 homeless people in the system, according to the Transit Authority, which attempts an occasional census of subway resi­dents. At times, the number has gone as high as 2,000. Track workers run into them all the time — on platforms, in the tunnels, and in abandoned stations like the ones  at 18th, 91st, and Worth Streets. “At Chambers Street one night,” says J.J. Wilson, “they were cleaning an unused platform and they opened the door and this guy came run­ning out balls-ass naked and ran down the track. When they looked in, this guy had bottles of urine and whatnot in there. This guy was living in there.”

I’m not worried about being surprised while taking my first trip into a subway tunnel with J.J., a stocky, 17-year veter­an who has walked, inspected, and fixed a good portion of the system’s 720 miles. I feel safe, that is, until a train comes along. It is pitch-black, and the first thing we hear is the sound, a windy rum­ble coming up behind us. We wear reflec­tor vests and carry electric lanterns, but the train only gets closer and our fashion accessories just don’t compare. It passes peacefully, nevertheless, and as we turn a bend in the tunnel, light leaks toward us. In a few feet we are on the edge of a 27-man work crew — a “gang” loud with the clang of iron and bright with sheets of light bulbs revealing the tunnel’s roof and floor. The third rail has been shut off, but the crew treats it as if it were still alive. They lift 1,300 pound, 39-foot rail lengths into position; they replace ties, soaked rotten by the system’s poor drainage; and they see a few rats.

“That’s like everyday stuff,” Cook says. “There’s some huge sizes down here. We don’t call them rats. We call them track rabbits.”

“I was down near 14th Street once and they was running all around me in cir­cles,” says J.J., who claims they stay out of the tunnels and close to the platform garbage. “They didn’t bother me, but there was some big suckers.”

It’s almost 2 in the morning, and we head uptown on the Broadway line. Sub­way gangs get all their work done at night while the commuters sleep, so work is just picking up when we stop near 137th Street. A gang pours molten metal in between two track rails to smooth the trains’ rides. The heat of the metal warms the tunnel. The gang takes cover a few feet down the track as the fiery steel explodes on cue in a small black crucible. “Fire in the hole,” some­body shouts, and everyone looks away.


It’s hard work maintaining the subways, and even harder work building them. The tunnels are usually dug straight through solid bedrock. When they’re not, they go through wet silt, and men work in muddy rooms of pressurized air, under metal shields that keep water from filling in the tunnel. One of the most famous subway-construction accidents happened during a rush hour in 1915 on Seventh Avenue. Great holes were regu­larly blasted with explosives, but on that day, the boss blaster, a Tyrolian named August Mezzanotte, a.k.a. August Mid­night, made a mistake. His uncontrolled explosion ripped a hole in the avenue two blocks long, killed seven people — two of whom tumbled 30 feet under in a trolley car — and sent him running to his neph­ew’s house 30 blocks away. When he fi­nally came back to the site, one newspa­per reported that “he seemed highly nervous.”

In July 1880, in another historic acci­dent, 19 men, mostly Swedish and Irish, were buried alive in what was to have been the country’s first subaqueous tun­nel. The workers were digging just below the muddy bottom of the Hudson and had made it almost 100 yards toward Man­hattan from Jersey when the tunnel col­lapsed with little more warning than.the hiss of leaking air. The eight men who es­caped did so in a small iron air lock and only because one of the others stayed be­hind to hold back the water and see the door close on himself and the others. Af­ter the accident, a crowd stood for ten days on the “dumping-grounds and mud covered flats” of the Jersey shore, as one newspaper described it, watching as the shaft was drained and the men dug out.

Alfonse Panepinto drives his Port Authority van across the same flats until we reach the site of the collapse. We climb through an emergency exit down toward the abandoned tunnel. A PATH train passes on our left, in the more modern branch built after the accident; only 7,240 feet to go until its Christopher Street stop. To the right lies the shaft that marks the underwater tomb of the workers.

“We could start a natural steam bath down here,” Panepinto remarks as we enter, not really exaggerating. The air is as thick as a sauna, and the lens on my watch fogs. We hear absolute quiet save for the faithful clank of a water pump. We crawl through the small iron air lock and push the rectangular doors that seem more suited to submarines. It is completely black, but with a flashlight we see the bricks that line the ceiling, a puddle of river water, stalactites, and a rusted, green-and-white beach chair. We stop at the concreted end of the dead tunnel.

Daniel Gallagher worked with the Gaelic descendants of the PATH-tunnel victims on tunnels all over the city: the 63rd Street East River subway tunnel and the 138th sewerage interceptor, to name two. “You don’t think about work­ing underground,” he says. “You get used to it. Most people don’t even care. Everybody knew what a skyscraper looked like, but most of them didn’t know what a tunnel looked like. We were down a thousand feet in some cases.”

Gallagher’s retired now, his lungs worn out from the job, but his son Brian still works in the hole. He’s a strong, rud­dy-looking kid with red hair and a mem­bership card from Local 147 of the Com­pressed Air and Free Air Tunnel Workers. He makes roughly $1,000 a week. “I want to make my money and get out,” 26-year-old Brian says. “This is too dangerous.”

Brian is standing on the edge of the DEP’s latest and most extensive water project — City Water Tunnel No. 3, 24 feet wide and 800 feet down at its deep­est point. Dug through solid rock, it will connect all of Manhattan with its next century’s supply of water.

The tunnel’s working shaft has been closed now for almost six months since it was finished, and the sandhogs, as they’ve called themselves for decades, are deciding who’s going to go down first. They trade swears in brogues thicker than bedrock, but the head sand­hog, Tom, who speaks mostly Gaelic, fi­nally picks two men from the crew. They are placed into a bucket the size of a small oil barrel and lowered 80 stories into the ground on a wire dangling from a crane. The wind, they say, is pretty cold at the bottom.

A few hundred yards away from the hole stands a trailer. Inside, the site’s chief engineer, Jack Ledger, sits among oddly shaped rocks, photos of the tunnel captioned “The Doors of Hell,” and a few old copies of The Standard Handbook of Engineering. Ledger talks about how things are winding down now after 19 years. Engineers and geologists have come from all over the world, he says, to see the hole dug so incredibly deep, a tun­nel designed to survive the winnable atomic war imagined in the ’50s. He even brought his kids.

“I wanted to bring the whole family down, you know?” he says. “To me this is the acorn of the world. Where else are you going to see these rocks?” But he shakes his head: “They were completely bored. A tunnel’s nothing when you’re in a city with the Twin Towers and the Em­pire State. But we look at it after having watched it carved out stone by stone.”


It wasn’t until 1975 that Con Ed stopped covering each and every steam pipe that it laid in the ground with asbestos, a fiber once considered to be on the leading edge of insulating technol­ogy. Of the 103 miles of steam line that crisscross the avenues below 96th Street, roughly 90 percent are still cov­ered with the cancer-causing fiber. Con Ed says it has considered replacing the insulation on the pipes all at once, but it worries that such an elaborate and dis­ruptive maneuver might release more as­bestos into the air than if drivers in every car in the city hit their brakes all at once. (Brake pads are, in case you were un­sure, another source of the deadly fiber.)

The cost of such an extensive opera­tion is another concern, especially since the company spent several million re­moving the asbestos from 1,000 of its 1,700 manholes in Manhattan in the last year. So for the time being, asbestos-in­sulated steam pipes will be replaced as routine maintenance or an accident cleanup allows.

As is the case with most of the utilities underground, age is pushing for speedy repair. The great-grandfather of the modern-day steam system, the New York Steam Company, began back in 1882, and some not-too-distant relatives of those lines are still lying around. Steam lines have been inspected more or less annually since Con Ed took over in 1936, but there is still no real way to tell which pipe will burst next, or when.

They named the Gramercy Park’s pipe burst a “water hammer.” Four-hundred ­degree steam ran into relatively cool con­densed water. Air bubbles formed, the water beat down the bubbles, the bub­bles got bigger, and the water hit harder. “It basically hammered itself out of the pipe,” says a Con Ed spokesman. Some­thing could have been done: someone could have relieved the steam pressure. But somebody forgot, and the under­ground exploded. In no time at all Con Ed was talking about retraining its steam workers, reportedly regretting the re­tirement of one old-timer who had taught new employees the ways of the pipes.

Old airline pilots crash-land airplanes better than anybody, and it’s the same with underground engineers. “It still takes an expert engineer to know what’s underground,” says Con Ed’s Thomas Cowan (gas). “I’ve been around for 35 years and I still haven’t seen it all,” says Con Ed’s Joseph Iacono (electric).

Like the Williamsburg Bridge, the city’s subterranean iron works may one day crumble, but all the engineers can talk about is progress. They’re talking about fiber-optic cables; about those new hard-rubber joint protectors; about plas­tic pipes; and about cast-iron pipes with just a pinch of silicon. They’re even start­ing to send electronic eyes under­ground — video cameras snaking through the mazes to inspect old and un­reachable tunnels.

Which is progress, sure enough, though it probably won’t add any order to the city’s most cluttered landscape. It just means another man-made device down there. It just means another toy at the bottom of a tunnel. And then, in a thousand years, an archaeologist will wonder what the hell a video camera is doing 80 stories below Manhattan.


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.”


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.”


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.


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.


Why Bergen Street’s New Subway Signals Cause Worse Delays Than the Old Ones

On April 5, the F and G trains stopped running in Brooklyn because of a signal problem near the Bergen Street station. The service disruption, which diverted the F and halted G service altogether, began at 5:44 p.m. and didn’t get fixed until 7:16 p.m., ruining rush-hour commutes for thousands of New Yorkers.

This particular disruption is not from the recent spate of signal issues at Bergen Street reported on yesterday by the New York Times. It is exactly the same kind of signal issue at exactly the same place, but it occurred in 2016, before the subway was in a recognized state of crisis. In fact, Bergen Street has been a trouble spot ever since a new signaling system was installed there a decade earlier, raising questions about just how many of the MTA’s delay problems can be solved with technological upgrades.

The Bergen Street upgrades in 2006 installed a type of signaling technology new to the New York City subway that used computers to control the interlockings, the series of signals and switches that govern train movement. Before this, subway interlockings used basic relay technology — think magnets and tiny electrical currents — to manage the signals and switches. But there was newer technology out there called solid-state interlocking (SSI) that substituted computers for the old electromechanical interlockings.

In March 1999, the control room at Bergen Street for the F and G lines caught fire, destroying key equipment for the nearby interlocking. Service was restored within months using the same century-old technology as before, but the MTA decided to make the Bergen Street interlocking the pilot for the system’s first SSI, which it awarded to Alcatel, Safetran, and L.K. Comstock. Since then the authority has installed SSI at several other points, including along the Dyre Avenue line.

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Switching to SSI is a little like replacing your computer’s old mechanical hard drive with an internal solid-state drive, which likewise uses semiconductors rather than electromagnetism. This makes SSI interlockings more reliable from a technical standpoint — electrical currents can be fickle, especially in wet conditions, which the subway very often is — but also a bigger problem when something goes wrong.

The older signals may be more fickle, but they’re also easier to fix — often the problem can be diagnosed with a quick visual inspection, and it doesn’t have to cause a complete halt of service. When a signal malfunctions, a device called a stop arm rises from the tracks and prevents trains from moving past the broken signal. With older electromechanical signals, train operators can bypass these stop arms by doing what’s called a key-by, crawling past the signals at extremely slow speeds and either pressing a button or using a more automatic method to lower the stop arm.

But with the Bergen Street SSI, there is no key-by mechanism because the interlocking is controlled by the computer. The stop arm goes up, and it stays up. And if the computer is malfunctioning, it can’t be diagnosed visually; it’s often the software that’s malfunctioning, which requires a programmer to troubleshoot. That’s why when there are signal problems at other points in the system, there will be delays — but at Bergen Street, service is shut down entirely.

Modernizing the subway is an important part of restoring the city’s subway service, but it must be implemented properly. As the Bergen Street interlocking demonstrates on an all-too-regular basis, implementing new technology poorly can result in even worse service than that with the old technology. The lesson from the Bergen Street interlocking is not to force modernization on unwilling administrators, but to replace them with the type of people who know what they’re doing. Like the trains themselves, we’re getting there, but much too slowly.


The Subways Melted Down Real Good (Again) This Morning

You may have looked at your weather app when you got up this morning and noticed the forecast for tomorrow and Saturday is in the 70s and and sunny. Woo-hoo! Spring is finally here! With a little bounce in your step, you headed off to work anticipating the glorious weekend.

And then you went to take the subway, which this morning was experiencing delays only on the 1, 4, 5, 6, A, C, D, E, F, G, L, M, N, Q, R, and W lines.

The biggest problem was on the A, C, F, and G lines, which, according to the official NYCT Twitter account, were delayed thanks to an “altercation on an A train at High St.” (with weapons!) that required a police investigation. But that wasn’t all. Apparently, a small plague has descended upon our great city, as sick passengers held up trains at Eighth Avenue and Myrtle-Wyckoff on the L, plus 86th Street on the 4/5. Throw in some signal problems on the N/Q/R/W at Herald Square, a dash of an unruly customer on the 14th Street 6 train platform, signal problems at Parkchester, an M train with mechanical problems at Steinway Street, a D train with mechanical problems at Bay 50th Street, a train with mechanical problems at Bergen Street on the F/G, and a 1 train with mechanical problems at 145 Street, and have you forgotten about the nice weather yet?

All in all, it was an impressive display of a system-wide meltdown masquerading as a morning commute. Aspiring commuters took to Twitter to lament their predicament. Representative examples:

If you’re looking for some kind of detailed explanation of precisely how everything went so wrong all at the same time, here’s the best I can do:

Every once in a while, it’s not only likely but quite predictable that when a system routinely experiences lots of delays, on some occasions it will experience a crap ton of delays all at the same time. In this case, the fight on the A train at High Street exacerbated an already bad commute where sick passengers and trains with mechanical problems were discharging entire trains onto already crowded platforms. High Street is a particularly inconvenient place to pick a fight, as there is no express track on that part of the line to which trains can be easily diverted. So the A/C had to be sent along the F line while the police investigated the fight. This resulted in at least some F trains being diverted to the G to relieve congestion along the F, as well as widespread delays on the A/C/E all the way up to Columbus Circle.

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Because the A and C were diverted to the F line, that meant further delays for the B, D, and M as congestion increased between Broadway-Lafayette and West 4th Street. Add to that all the prospective A/C and G riders seeking alternative routes, and a broken door here or sick passenger there is all it would take to put the icing on the broken-train cake.

But if all you want is some recognition that your commute really was that bad and that the subway really isn’t getting any better despite the spending of hundreds of millions of dollars to “stabilize” the system, then here is that acknowledgment. And, I’m very sorry to tell you — again — that this will happen again sooner than you would like.


Subway Cars Will Get Wider Doors by 2020, Everyone Rejoice

Inside a half–subway car prototype in the Hudson Yards station on Friday afternoon, an MTA employee holding a tablet peppered Thomas Downs, a student at Fordham Prep, with questions. “How would you rate the material of the grab rails?” “How would you rate the color of the grab rails?” “How would you rate the finish of the grab rails?” After each question, Downs, wearing a light jacket over a green polo shirt, gave a measured, occasionally enthusiastic response, which the MTA employee dutifully logged.

Unlike many of the other people who ambled along the Hudson Yards mezzanine, Downs had trekked from the Bronx specifically to see the new prototype, called the R211, which is on display through December 6 to solicit feedback from the public. The people’s opinions, the MTA promises, will be shared with the car’s designers “to help better inform how the cars are ultimately produced.”

The prototype design closely matches the renderings released last year, with an updated color scheme that compliments the new blue-and-yellow buses deployed around the city. The car’s nose features a diagonal lighting pattern that creates an octagonal effect, along with a much brighter and more discernible line identifier.

Inside the train, there are more poles to grab, brighter lighting, some fold-up seats to increase capacity during rush hour, dynamic strip map displays above the door, and plans for a touch-panel subway map to replace the current paper ones.

But for Downs, these innovations were simply not enough. “It’s really disgraceful they’re just doing it now,” he grumbled after finishing the MTA survey, demurring at the $3.188 billion cost for the new fleet of 1,025 cars. “It’s just sad. These should have been employed years ago.” Before he left to go back to school, he lambasted the transit authority for “keeping people entertained with these fancy cars.”

While other visitors welcomed the cosmetic changes — “It’s nice! Definitely more room, which is nice,” one woman who popped in for a quick peek told an MTA employee — many straphangers share Downs’s primary concern about not getting stuck in the tunnels or on the platforms. In this respect, the new cars may be too little, too late. The cars, first conceived in December 2011, are scheduled to be delivered starting in 2020 — at which point they will have to undergo testing before entering service — with the last of the cars delivered by the end of 2026.

Of course, the cars aren’t merely a cosmetic upgrade. The most obvious improvement is that newer cars break less often. The R211s are intended to replace old R46 and R32 models running on the A and F lines, the oldest in the system, which fail as often as you’d expect fifty-year-old train cars to fail. Last year, the R32’s Mean Distance Between Failure (MDBF) was 32,327 miles,  whereas the newer R188s that serve the 7 line fail once every 521,186 miles. The fleet-wide average, including all trains old and new, currently hovers around 118,000 miles.

In addition to being new, the R211s feature two design elements that the MTA hopes will improve performance. The doors are eight inches wider, meaning, in theory, people will be able to enter and exit the cars more quickly and with less congestion. The MTA has estimated the wider doors will reduce station dwell time by 32 percent.

Will they, though? Far be it for this lowly human to question the “computer simulation of passenger flow conducted on behalf of the MTA” where the 32 percent figure comes from, but that seems implausible. The doors used on current cars are 50 inches wide; the R211 doors are 58 inches wide. It’s hard to imagine how eight inches will make such a tremendous difference on crammed rush hour platforms. Even when doing the sideway subway squeeze, most humans are wider than eight inches. Personally, I did not even notice a difference when walking through the new doors, nor did I feel like the doors on the 7 train downstairs were particularly narrow when I returned.

(The MTA did not release any details about its computer simulation, including the parameters under which they were able to see 32 percent improvements. This question, along with others sent to the MTA press office, were not answered before press time; the roughly half-dozen MTA employees stationed at the prototype were not permitted to answer questions from the media.)

The argument that speeding ingress and egress to cars is key is in keeping with the MTA’s strategy of blaming as much of the subway’s recent struggles on “overcrowding” as possible because that makes it sound like the subway is just too popular and it’s not the agency’s fault. But the “overcrowding” excuse is a proxy for the fact that trains come less frequently, fail more often, and are more bunched than before because of a decrepit signal system, leaving passengers with no choice but to wait it out on the platform, which results in — you guessed it — crowding.

Even the MTA’s own ridership data, as revealed by the New York Times, shows the overcrowding excuse is bunk. In March 2016, there were 11,000 more delays attributed to “overcrowding” than the prior March, even though 2 million fewer trips were taken. Since overcrowding is the result of fundamental issues like signals and maintenance, it’s hard to see how 8-inch-wider doors will noticeably improve the system’s performance.

The final improvement, open gangways — the lack of dividers between cars — is a more guaranteed plus. Widely featured in the London, Paris, Toronto, and Rio de Janeiro metro systems, open gangways allow more people to fit onto trains and move between cars; some estimates say that they can increase capacity as much as 10 percent (although there are fair reasons to be suspicious of that number, too). Of the new R211s, 750 cars are expected to have open gangways.

Unsurprisingly, the open gangways and bright colors give the subway a more polished, cosmopolitan feel. In the prototype, three businesspeople, all wearing black coats, stopped by to peruse the new design.

“It looks a little European,” one woman remarked.

“To me it looks Australian,” the man replied. The three looked around at the promises of the future, still far enough away that it wasn’t worth lingering. Anyway, they had a train to catch.

“Oh well,” the third shrugged. “Back to reality now.”