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.


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.


Yes, Those Are Zipcar and Enterprise Logos on Parking Signs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


An Elegy for the Sublimely Crappy Chambers Street Subway Station

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Borough Hall Ceiling Collapse Shows How Badly Subway Is Deteriorating

Back in January, the city’s Department of Transportation prepared a list of “priority” subway stations that ought to be renovated. At the time, a few members of the MTA Board, including DOT commissioner Polly Trottenberg, were opposing an MTA project originating from Governor Cuomo’s office called the Enhanced Station Initiative (ESI). There were several points of contention, including a failure to propose installing elevators or finding other ways to make stations accessible, but Trottenberg and others also complained that the MTA wasn’t clear on how it had chosen the 33 stations for the $1 billion project. So, DOT prepared their own list and compared it with the stations chosen by the MTA.

There was almost no overlap between the two lists. Yet, Borough Hall was on neither of them.

This is worth revisiting now, because the ceiling at Borough Hall collapsed this afternoon. A giant pile of roof stuff fell onto the Manhattan-bound platform a couple of hours before the evening rush hour.

This isn’t the first incident of this kind: Two weeks ago, some tiles fell on the Chambers Street platform as well.

Borough Hall was the 27th busiest subway station in 2016, the last year for which data is available, and the ceiling collapsed onto the Manhattan-bound 4/5 platform, one of the busiest lines in the system. Fortunately, only one person suffered minor injuries, but the debris covered a portion of the platform that typically holds a dozen or two people during peak hours. It could have been so much worse.

It’s no secret Borough Hall desperately needed renovating. As recently as April, one of its entrances was literally held together by duct tape.

Perhaps one reason Borough Hall didn’t make any emergency repair lists is because the station was repaired six years ago as part of the FASTRACK program, which included “intensive cleaning and maintenance”; the link includes ample photos of work crews staring up at/painting the ceiling. (It’s worth noting those repairs occurred pre-Sandy, and it’s possible some of the water damage occurred since then, although that area of Brooklyn did not experience any flooding.)

The damage here, though, is far more severe than fallen planks and plaster. For all of the subway’s trials and tribulations this year, its safety has never been questioned. But that question has now effectively been asked by the fallen debris.

The answers are not flattering: The ESI program (although the MTA has stopped calling it that) is plowing forward with three station closures in Manhattan slated for next month, to continue through the end of the year. According to the MTA, these repairs will also include addressing “structural defects,” which only serves as a reminder of just how many stations have those.

NYCT president Andy Byford told the press this afternoon that the cause of the collapse wasn’t immediately clear, but “there is some evidence of water ingress in that you’ve got a bit of paint peeling”; he said structural engineers are currently inspecting the station to determine the cause and the extent of the damage.

The MTA is now in the unenviable position of either explaining that it didn’t know the Borough Hall ceiling was in such a state of disrepair or that it simply didn’t bother to fix it. I’m not sure which is worse, and it doesn’t really matter. In either case, the onus is now on the MTA to prove its stations are structurally sound, because we simply cannot assume that anymore. The only thing we do know: Of the list of fifty or so stations two public authorities determined were most in need of critical renovations, Borough Hall was not one of them. Not to sound alarmist, but at this point, there’s no great reason to believe any station is safe.


Why Are There So Damn Many Ubers?

The story of the ride-sharing industry over the past decade — which is, more or less, the story of Uber, trailed by Lyft and a series of also-rans — is usually told like this: The hidebound taxi industry, shielded from competition and the traditional rules of supply and demand by a long-standing regulatory regime, was suddenly and swiftly #disrupted by Uber and its copycats, which allowed anyone with a car and a cellphone to act like a cab driver. Traditional cabbies called foul, but ride-sharing services immediately became so popular that most cities were helpless to stop them, and ended up having to make their peace with them.

The obvious question: If the taxicab industry was so heavily regulated, how did Uber, with its notorious disregard for rules, break into it? The answer is different depending on the jurisdiction. But the story of how Uber emerged victorious in New York City is an interesting and mostly forgotten one — and offers a look into the mechanics of how the Internet has allowed companies to remake the way the world works while technically playing by the rules.

The old order

The idea that New York cabs have been heavily regulated isn’t wrong. The process began during the Great Depression: Jobless New Yorkers turned to driving cabs because there was no other work, but so many people did it that streets were clogged and fares plummeted below living wages. The city government decided to intervene in the market. In 1930, Mayor Jimmy Walker floated the idea of granting a single company a monopoly on taxicab service, but this proposal collapsed when it turned out that one company that might be considered for this role had given Walker a sizable “gift” of stock. Battles between independent cab drivers and employees of fleets during a 1934 strike turned violent, demonstrating how broken the system was. In 1937 the City Council passed the Haas Ordinance, which created a system of taxi medallions. Only drivers with medallions could accept curbside hails, and the drivers and their cabs had to live up to fairly strict standards and charge fares that were set by the city.

The initial number of medallions issued was set at around 16,000. As the Depression ground on, many cabbies failed to pay the $10 renewal fee, so the number of medallions in use fell to 11,787. That number stopped going down as the economy began to expand again, but no new medallions were issued until 1996 — and even then, it only agreed to issue at most a few dozen per year. The number of cabs remained fixed, and a side effect was that drivers congregated almost exclusively in the best hunting grounds for fares: Midtown and Lower Manhattan.

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The second tier

But, as all New Yorkers know, yellow cabs weren’t the only vehicle you could hire pre-Uber. There were also livery services, which the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) began licensing in the 1950s. There are several tiers of service, probably the best-known of which is the upscale “black car” service long beloved by businesspeople with expense accounts.

The TLC regulated livery services relatively lightly compared to taxicabs: There were less stringent requirements on cars and drivers, companies were freer to set their own fares, and, crucially for our story, there was no citywide limit on the number of cars. The tradeoff was that livery service drivers had to be sent on their rounds by a centralized dispatcher and couldn’t pick up curbside hails — although, as a 1990 New York Times article noted, they sometimes did so anyway in the outer boroughs, where regulators turned a blind eye because livery cars were filling an unmet need left by the restricted number of yellow cabs.

At this point, it’s worth quoting verbatim how Bruce Schaller, a consultant on taxi and vehicle-for-hire regulatory policy, describes the TLC’s legal definition of a black car, which may ring some bells:

Under TLC rules, black cars are defined as FHVs [for-hire vehicles] that operated from bases organized as either a franchise or cooperative, and where at least 90% of customers pay by a method other than cash.

The Trojan horse

Uber launched in New York City in May 2011, a little more than two years into the company’s existence. What’s interesting about the press coverage at the time is how the service was presented: not as something that will completely upend the transportation market, but rather, as the Times put it, as “a cellphone application that is aimed at making using a car service quick and painless.” The Times‘ Jenna Wortham explained that “Uber operates as a dispatch service, working with local owners of licensed private car companies.”

So there’s the answer to how Uber got onto New York’s very regulated streets: It piggybacked onto an existing regulatory framework, presenting itself as an add-on to the service already offered by licensed livery car companies. Indeed, without livery cars to serve as the thin edge of the wedge, Uber couldn’t have launched at all. The rest of New York State, governed by state rules that didn’t accommodate livery cars, was among the last places in the country to permit ride-sharing services; you couldn’t call an Uber in Buffalo or Syracuse until 2017. When Lyft attempted to launch in New York City in 2014 without going through the TLC livery car process, it found itself subject to a restraining order from the attorney general. Uber founder Travis Kalanick, by contrast, had gone to the TLC in advance to talk things out.

The letter, not the spirit

As a result of all this, the process for becoming an Uber driver in New York City is actually significantly more regulated than it is in much of the rest of the country, where you need little more than a driver’s license and a car that meets Uber’s relatively liberal requirements compared to those imposed by TLC. The pool of Uber drivers in New York has now expanded far beyond full-time livery drivers (though many livery drivers still use the app); but people who want to sign up have to jump through the legal hoops to become livery drivers themselves, getting the proper licenses and plates from the TLC. Crucially, they also have to get a “base letter” from Uber, a certification that they are, as TLC regulations require, driving a car that’s “operated from [a] base.”

This last requirement seems like the flimsiest part of the enterprise. Traditional black cars operate out of real, physical garages and are dispatched by a person who fields phone calls. An Uber “base” is entirely theoretical from the driver’s point of view. In that first Times article on Uber, Dan Ackman, a New York lawyer who works for many cabbies, says that the city could challenge Uber for failing to relay booking requests from a central office. But that’s a hammer that never fell — at least, not at first.

Rise of the machines

One of the interesting things about those initial reviews of Uber in New York is that it wasn’t clear whether the service would go beyond serving a niche clientele. Reviewers still saw it as a (costly) add-on to a black car service, a category whose position they thought they understood. For those who wanted to grab a ride in New York’s densest neighborhoods (and were lucky enough not to be racially profiled by drivers), livery cars had always been less desirable than yellow cabs, because you could get into a cab just by waving your arm, whereas you needed to call up a livery service to request a car.That’s why livery cars had never been limited by the TLC the way cabs had: Their relative undesirability meant the market kept the number of livery drivers to a reasonable level without government intervention.

A terribly overused buzzword that internet companies like to use is “frictionless,” but it’s a decent term to describe what happened next. Stripped down to its essence, the process of using Uber was the way black car services had always worked: You used a phone to make a car come to you, and you paid by credit card. As Ackman told the Times, “It’s not that different from using Google or a directory to find a car service.”

But the app made everything easier for both the driver and the passenger; GPS in particular meant the driver could home right in on you rather than having to work out where exactly you were via conversation with a dispatcher. Having your credit card on file meant you didn’t have to think about payment on every trip. Drivers didn’t hang out at the virtual “bases” like livery drivers; they cruised the streets like yellow cabs would, meaning that they were never more than a few minutes away. And as the supply of drivers expanded beyond full-time livery drivers, the Uber fares, which weren’t regulated the way yellow cab fares were, dropped. The upshot was that getting a ride with this newfangled livery service was suddenly more convenient than hailing a cab, not less.

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The genie out of the bottle

The TLC’s loose regulations for livery services had endured for decades because they worked fine for the scale of the industry as it had been. That changed very swiftly in the early ’10s thanks to Uber and other ride-hailing apps, and that’s what makes Uber in New York a typical internet story. It was only able to come onto the scene due to the existence of a system regulated by a specific set of rules; but once it arrived, it upended that system and proved that the rules were inadequate for the new order.

In recent years, the number of “livery cars” — which is what, technically, Uber and Lyft and the like are in New York City — has exploded: There are now more than 100,000 in the city, twice the number in 2013. As most people know, this has resulted in a huge pinch for traditional cabbies, who were already in a precarious situation before Uber arrived. Changes in TLC regulations in the 1970s shifted most cab drivers from being salaried employees of cab companies to being independent contractors, with predicable results for their financial stability. And the prices of medallions had been in a bubble, partly driven by financialization, rising from $250,000 at the turn of the century to more than $1 million by the early ’10s; prices have collapsed since, leading to financial ruin for many drivers and a troubling rash of suicides. Traditional black car drivers have similarly been devastated in the Uber era. And then there’s all the extra traffic, especially in the same parts of Manhattan where yellow cabs had traditionally ruled. Other than taxi-on-taxi violence, the same set of elements that had prompted the regulation of yellow cabs seemed to be back.

In 2015, Mayor de Blasio announced his intention to roll out new regulations that would specifically target ridesharing cars — which by this time were clearly a different animal from traditional livery services and needed a different set of rules. Perhaps the most important new regulation the mayor suggested was that for-hire companies with bases that handled more than 500 cars would only be able to increase their fleets by 1 percent annually.

But America in 2015 was no longer the land of FDR and the New Deal. Uber fought back, hard, deploying politically connected (and liberal) surrogates like David Plouffe and Al Sharpton, and showing customers a “de Blasio mode” on their phones where their rides would take 25 minutes to arrive if the regulation became law. De Blasio’s perennial antagonist Governor Cuomo also weighed in against him, and City Hall eventually gave up, settling for a toothless agreement for Uber to share data with the city about traffic and restrict its growth to its existing level (which was a heady 3 percent a month).

Still, the city is making another go at it today. Uber’s string of bad press over the past few years perhaps makes it more vulnerable and less sympathetic. Studies have shown that average car speeds in Manhattan are dropping, with increased traffic from ridesharing services to blame; particularly problematic is time drivers spend “deadheading,” driving around town looking for fares. The latest proposals, being pushed by Councilmember Ruben Diaz Sr., involve charging drivers a $2,000 annual fee, and — in a move that might make Uber’s entire model unworkable — restricting each virtual base to 250 cars. There will be resistance, as free marketeers are already inveighing against the proposals. We’ll see how it goes.


Why Do Some Parts of New York Have So Many Subways While Others Have None?

The New York City Subway is the lifeblood of the city, yet it seems perpetually embroiled in crisis; though it’s currently caught in a terrible backlog of deferred maintenance, the city can’t function without it, as the mounting panic over next year’s L train shutdown makes clear. Yet as a circulatory system, it leaves certain limbs significantly undernourished. Why was there only one line for the whole East Side of Manhattan until the Second Avenue line finally opened last year? Why does the G train wind so lonely and awkwardly from Brooklyn to Queens? Why are the downtown Brooklyn lines such a chaotic thicket of difficult transfers, while other densely populated parts of the borough, like East Flatbush, are devoid of service?

The answers are embedded in the subway’s historic origins. While you may know that the subway opened in 1904, that’s not the whole picture. Though 1904 marked the opening of the first subterranean line — a lightning bolt slashing through Manhattan, consisting of the uptown half of what’s now the 1/2/3 trains and the downtown half of the 4/5/6, linked by the current 42nd Street Shuttle — by that time there had already been trains riding on elevated structures above city streets for nearly forty years. Initially powered by steam locomotives or experimental cable traction, by the early twentieth century the els looked essentially like modern-day subway lines, with high platforms for level boarding trains powered by electric third rails (though the train cars were still mostly wood). Some of those elevated lines — including parts of the M and J/Z in Brooklyn and Queens — are still in use today. And those vanished lines are crucial for understanding why today’s subway system goes where it goes — and why its gaps are where they are.

In the beginning, there were two

The nineteenth-century rail transit scene in New York was messy, and involved, at one point, Boss Tweed blocking the development of a pneumatic tube subway to encourage the construction of elevated rail lines in Manhattan instead. As the turn of the twentieth century approached, most of the el lines and their various operating companies were gobbled up by two corporations: the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT), which controlled lines in Manhattan and the Bronx, and the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (BRT), which dominated Brooklyn and had a few lines poking into the still largely undeveloped borough of Queens.

The IRT was specifically created by financier August Belmont Jr. to operate the subway the city wanted to build down the length of Manhattan, after Belmont’s construction company won the right to build it. At the same time, Belmont’s company acquired the rights from financier Jay Gould to operate the already extant Manhattan elevated lines up Second, Third, Sixth, and Ninth avenues. So when the subway opened in 1904 it could operate both together as a single integrated system.

The IRT was, in essence, a set of tentacles running the length of Manhattan, with some of the tips extending up into the Bronx and a single prong crossing the East River into downtown Brooklyn. At this point there were three lines on the East Side — the southern half of today’s Lexington Avenue subway, plus those Second and Third avenue els.

The BRT system included a since-demolished line running the length of Fulton Street; a thicket of elevated lines in downtown Brooklyn; and old steam railroad excursion lines out to Coney Island that had only been partially modernized. BRT trains originally had terminals at ferry piers along the East River, but by 1912 service just barely made it into Manhattan across the Williamsburg and Brooklyn bridges. (Yes, the Brooklyn Bridge used to carry subway lines to a BRT terminal at Park Row, across the street from City Hall.)

Double deal

The 1912 date was key because with it came the Dual Contracts, a huge milestone in which the city used its muscle and its cash to shape the growing rail network and encourage more construction into the outer boroughs. The idea was that the city would put up the bulk of the money for the lines and then lease them to the IRT and BRT to operate; much of the contributions from the private companies would take the form of equipment and facilities. This would offload the risks and bureaucracy of day-to-day operations onto the private companies, though it would also allow them to reap the profits.

What followed was a flurry of construction activity that tripled the amount of track in the city in only a decade. By 1920, the IRT in Manhattan had taken on its familiar H shape, with extensions deep into Queens and Brooklyn; the BRT, meanwhile, featured a subway running from Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn all the way up Broadway in Manhattan and then across the river again into Astoria. And all those elevated lines were still operating as well.

Routes of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company.

But the end product had its quirks. The city ended up with not one but two systems, operated by rival companies who refused to cooperate with each other more than the bare minimum required. At the very few stations where you could transfer from one system to another, passengers had to pay a second fare to change trains. And forget about sharing track: The two systems used trains of slightly different sizes, making joint lines difficult to impossible. (This remains true today: The numbered lines are the old IRT system, which is why their cars are a little skinnier and shorter than those on the lettered lines.)

The city takes all the marbles

Amid resentment that the two private companies were more focused on fighting each other than serving their riders, the city decided to further complicate matters by adding a third subway system. The companies themselves didn’t make much money, in part because the city refused to allow them to raise their fares above 5 cents; the BRT actually went bankrupt in 1919 (in the wake of a train crash that killed more than ninety people), emerging reorganized as the Brooklyn–Manhattan Transit Corporation, or BMT. But there was still widespread belief that corporate management was lining its pockets at public expense.

Then there were the elevated lines. If you live near the current elevated structures in the outer boroughs, you know how noisy they are. The old-school els weren’t quite as bad, because many of them still ran quieter wooden train cars. But in ultra-dense Manhattan, real estate developers, who a generation earlier had loved the way the els opened up the northern reaches of the island to development, now saw them as a particular nuisance. Still, they carried tons of passengers, and the two private companies that operated them had 999-year leases on the rights to use them, so there was little incentive for them to heavily invest in underground alternatives.

The pivotal figure of the next phase was John F. Hylan, who had worked as a BRT engineer while studying law; legend had it he was fired for running his train too fast. When he became mayor in 1918, he began planning the doom of his former employers, convinced they were growing fat on their monopoly earnings and that a public corporation could reap those benefits for the city. (Hylan was also a promoter of bus transit on surface streets, earning him occasional villain status among streetcar conspiracy theorists.) In 1925, construction began on a new set of lines, to be operated by the city itself, and known as the Independent City-Owned Subway System, or IND. The new system, which opened in phases during the 1930s, was entirely underground and had stations that were palatial compared to those of the IRT and BMT.

While some of the new system ran to previously unserved parts of the city, this wave of construction largely aimed to undermine the private lines that were already there by providing a faster underground alternative to the slower, rickety els; Hylan was convinced that the IRT and BMT would be content to ride things out to the end of their contracts until 1952 unless pushed. The Sixth Avenue Line (today the B/D/F/M in Manhattan) made the IRT’s Sixth Avenue Elevated obsolete; the old line was torn down in 1938, and there was a persistent rumor that the scrap metal was sold to Japan for war use. The linked Eighth Avenue and Fulton lines (today the A/C in Manhattan and Brooklyn) were such a marvel they prompted Duke Ellington to write a hit song in their honor; they killed off the IRT’s Ninth Avenue Elevated and the BMT’s elevated Fulton Line, respectively.

As the end of the 1930s approached, the IRT and BMT threw in the towel and agreed to let the city buy them out, unifying the subways as a single system.

The elusive vision

What comes next is one of the great tragedies of the New York City subway system. The city had been planning a second round of IND expansion even before the first set of lines went into service. The initial 1929 plan was delayed by the Depression, but as the finishing touches were being put on unification in 1939, a second iteration of the scheme was developed, with new subways to replace the remaining elevated lines and expand service further into the outer boroughs. The various plans the city developed over this decade have since become known as the Second System, although strictly speaking it was never a single organized plan.

The Second System was breathtaking in scope, but for the most part it never happened. New York hit a financial downward spiral that made such ambitions impossible; the biggest project that was actually realized was the crosstown line at 53rd Street that crosses the river to Queens. But when you look at the Second System map, suddenly some of the awkward aspects of the current subway make sense, as the missing lines would have filled in the gap that today’s riders can feel as they make their way around the system’s deficiencies:

  • The most famous part of the Second System is the Second Avenue Subway, which was planned to run the entire length of Manhattan. In anticipation of the subway’s construction, the Second Avenue Elevated was torn down immediately after unification in 1940; persistent pressure from real estate developers got the Third Avenue Elevated demolished as well in the mid Fifties, even though the start of the subway project had already begun receding from sight. This created the bane of Manhattan’s transit existence for half a century: The East Side, which once had three trunk transit lines, suddenly found itself with only one, the increasingly overcrowded 4/5/6 trains.
  • The G train, the system’s perennially unloved stepchild, was initially intended to continue under the East River and connect to the Second Avenue Line. There was also going to be a major transfer station in south Williamsburg (which was partially constructed and later became the site of an illegal art exhibition), where passengers could take tunnels leading to Lower Manhattan, or go the other direction down Utica Avenue deep into Brooklyn.
  • A new line was intended to branch off the current F and head down Fort Hamilton Parkway in Brooklyn; this line would have then tunneled under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to the fabled land of Staten Island.
  • There were also plans to build extensions into Jamaica and Hillcrest in Queens and along the east shore of the Bronx to Throgs Neck.

Instead of expanding, the system contracted for most of the remainder of the twentieth century. As noted, the old el lines had carried wooden train cars, and they needed upgrades to carry the subway trains; in the tightened postwar financial situation, that wasn’t considered a worthwhile investment for the most part, and so the downtown Brooklyn els were demolished by the 1960s. And the benefits of a combined system weren’t as easy to achieve as the city had hoped. Internally, the MTA still refers to each line as IND, IRT, or BMT, and it’s taken heroic engineering efforts in some cases just to create what should’ve been obvious transfers between the original systems. It wasn’t only physical infrastructure that resisted attempts at change: When in 1968 the city finally opened a connection in Lower Manhattan that allowed Brooklyn BMT trains to travel on Manhattan IND lines and vice versa, commuters found the service changes so disruptive and confusing that in only a few years most of them were eliminated again. The tunnel went unused in revenue service until 2010, by which time almost everyone had finally forgotten that the subway used to be three different systems.

UNITED STATES – NOVEMBER 25: Is She on the Right Track? Nancy Baker, 24, appears perplexed while studying subway map of new routes going into effect today on BMT and IND systems. But the true test of the pretty Manhattanite’s mettle-and those of other riders-will come on Monday morning when city goes to work

In 2017, after ten years of construction, a three-station stub of the Second Avenue Subway finally opened on the Upper East Side. The first brand-new line in decades, it was internally designated by the MTA as part of the long-vanished IND system. There is as yet no start date for its next phase. Plans to expand the new line down the length of the island aren’t funded yet, but at least they exist and are somewhat complete. There’s nothing even on the MTA’s wish list about expanding into corners of the outer boroughs where subway service was just around the corner eighty years ago. How bad is it? Where once the IRT and IND competed for the Bronx’s business, now the borough is pinning its hopes on Metro North — truly, a long way to fall.


How Screwed Will Your Subway Line Be by the L Train Shutdown? F/G Edition

During the upcoming L train shutdown set to begin in early 2019, the MTA expects 70 to 80 percent of displaced L riders to take other subway lines. This will affect not only those displaced riders, but all the commuters who currently take the lines that will become filled with L refugees. This week, the Village Voice examines the impact on the F and G lines. Click here for previous editions and other L train shutdown coverage.

Many years ago, before I lived in New York, I visited my cousin who lived in Greenpoint. We went to the nearest bar to get far too drunk, per standard My Cousin Is Crashing on My Couch protocol. Somehow, she became embroiled in a debate with the bartender about the G train. My cousin insisted the G is bad, while the bartender countered that the G is in fact good. This went on for far longer than I could have previously fathomed. Ironically, the only one of us who didn’t say a word the entire time would later become a transit reporter and write an article about the G.

That was a much more innocent time, when one could encounter a difference of opinion as to whether the subway was good or bad. While I’m not an omnipresent figure in the city’s bars and that particular bar has since been replaced by a much nicer bar — I don’t actually know this to be the case because I don’t remember the bar’s name, but it feels like a safe assumption — I don’t think a similar debate would get very far today.

I’m waxing nostalgic about better, drunker times because I don’t quite know how to break it to you that the G is profoundly screwed during the L train shutdown.

Like the J/M/Z, the G is going to bear the brunt of the shutdown in various ways. There will be the throngs of people who take the remaining section of the L a few stops and transfer to the G at Metropolitan Avenue, a station wholly unequipped for such mass transfers thanks to multiple bottlenecks and narrow passageways. There will also be the people who don’t bother with the L and walk to the Metropolitan Avenue, Nassau Avenue, or Broadway stops on the G.

The natural reaction to these scenarios would be to increase capacity on the G line, and the MTA is planning to do just that. Former New York City Transit president and current MTA managing director Ronnie Hakim said at a 2016 community meeting that G trains will be lengthened from four to eight cars and run with three extra trains per hour, bringing the total to about eleven trains per hour during peak times, or one every five or six minutes. Between the longer cars and three extra trains an hour, the MTA will triple capacity on the line, accommodating approximately 14,000 extra riders an hour during peak hours.

This is far more than any other line can do to add capacity. Yet, it’s not clear if it will be enough — remember, 225,000 cross-river commuters every day will be displaced! And even if it is enough for the G, all those displaced riders will be using the G to get to some other Manhattan-bound line that will not have the ability to accommodate an extra however-many thousand riders an hour.

But there’s one other issue relating to the G that demonstrates how the L shutdown will create a domino effect, screwing over those who are two degrees removed from the L. And no line exemplifies this problem more than the F.

In a 2013 assessment, NYCT noted that the G is scheduled around the F, with which it shares tracks south of Bergen Street. Because the F has heavier ridership and more merges — with the M in Manhattan and the E in Queens — the report notes that “accommodating the higher-ridership F on the shared tracks causes uneven scheduled G service during rush hours.” In other words, the F gets priority over the G. But it’s not clear that should, or will, be the case during the shutdown, especially since the other two lines the F merges with will also be key outlets for L riders. In order to make G, M, and E service more frequent and reliable during the shutdown, F service will have to be cut.

[Update: Since this article was first published, the Voice obtained the MTA’s shutdown service plans, which do not include a cut to F train service. Instead, the MTA is cutting R train service to enable more E trains to run on the Queens Boulevard line. That’s good news for F riders, but still leaves the same total number of trains running into Manhattan overall.]

On top of that, all three planned replacement bus routes will be stopping at Delancey Street–Essex Street. Anyone getting off there and hopping on the subway will be unable to board the J/M/Z, which will be crush-loaded with displaced L riders of its own. That leaves…the F, which is likely to run less frequently to accommodate more G, M, and E trains, meaning each train will be more crowded and there will be even more people waiting to board in Manhattan.

What You Should Do If You Currently Take the G

Along with my standard advice that applies to most everyone — move far away from north Brooklyn, get a bike, or change your work hours if you can — there isn’t a whole lot G riders can do. Displaced L-ers will fan out in both directions from north Brooklyn, some heading north to Queens and others south to a transfer in downtown Brooklyn. Much of the area served by the G is otherwise a transit desert: Greenpoint, Bed-Stuy, and Clinton Hill have very few alternatives, especially once the J/M/Z is ruled out. In general, I would explore any and all options for avoiding the G north of Hoyt-Schermerhorn. Depending on how bad the F gets, I would consider transferring to the R at 4th Avenue–9th Street (and then transferring from the R to a faster line at Atlantic Avenue–Barclays Center.

If things get really dire, you could always explore local bus options as a connector to downtown Brooklyn and a subway line of your choosing. There are many routes and permutations depending on where you live — here is the unholy mess of a pdf otherwise known as the Brooklyn bus map to peruse. Suffice it to say, bus service is a total disaster and should only be used as a last resort. Yet it may well get to the point where the G is so intolerable that the bus really is a better option. It is a testament to how much we are all very, very screwed.

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