Can New York’s Mass Transit System Get Any Worse?

Can New York’s Mass Transit System Get Any Worse?

[Updated 11/19/17]

This “About New York” column by Jim Dwyer in the New York Times about the woeful experience that the New York City subway is these days brought back to mind all those $20 cab rides I paid for with increasing frequency to get to work without dealing with the overcrowding underground and still loving my fellow humans.

That was before Uber or Lyft. It started to add up before I finally moved out of the city. I wasn’t the only one quitting the subway.

Turns out ridership is still adding up in the negative for the transit system, as Dwyer reports:

The number of people taking the subways dropped last year, and through the first nine months of this year is down by nearly 17 million over the same period in 2015.

“The correlation between employment and ridership has broken down,” Tim Mulligan, a senior vice president at New York City Transit, told members of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board this week.”

The reasons for the decline are many.

As ridership was growing, service was being cut. Fewer trains are running today than in 2007, and those that are running break down more often. More than 2,000 jobs in critical areas like repairing signals, tracks and cars were unfilled. By last year, subway cars that were bought in the 2000s were failing more frequently than ones that had gone into service 25 years earlier.

Other NYT reporters dig up plenty of reasons leading to failed system that the transit is these days, and it makes for a head-shaking read:

A rush-hour Q train careened off the rails in southern Brooklyn. A track fire on the A line in Upper Manhattan sent nine riders to the hospital. A crowded F train stalled in a downtown tunnel, leaving hundreds in the dark without air-conditioning for nearly an hour. As the heat of packed-together bodies fogged the windows, passengers beat on the walls and clawed at the doors in a scene from a real-life horror story.

In June, after another derailment injured 34 people, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo declared that the system was in a “state of emergency.”

Century-old tunnels and track routes are crumbling, but The Times found that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s budget for subway maintenance has barely changed, when adjusted for inflation, from what it was 25 years ago.

Signal problems and car equipment failures occur twice as frequently as a decade ago, but hundreds of mechanic positions have been cut because there is not enough money to pay them — even though the average total compensation for subway managers has grown to nearly $300,000 a year.

Daily ridership has nearly doubled in the past two decades to 5.7 million, but New York is the only major city in the world with fewer miles of track than it had during World War II. Efforts to add new lines have been hampered by generous agreements with labor unions and private contractors that have inflated construction costs to five times the international average.

New York’s subway now has the worst on-time performance of any major rapid transit system in the world, according to data collected from the 20 biggest. Just 65 percent of weekday trains reach their destinations on time, the lowest rate since the transit crisis of the 1970s, when graffiti-covered cars regularly broke down.

The full article is here.

The Uber factor is a huge reason that ridership is down so much as Dwyer documents. It’s clear in the reporting in both pieces that riders are just fed up with a subway experience that grinds them down: the missed auditions, late for meetings, the constant outages, the overcrowding, the horror stories of being trapped on a stalled train underground.

But the Times article also makes clear how years of bad decisions by political leadership and cronyism have mismanaged the transit system’s budget:

“…[Public] officials who have taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions from M.T.A. unions and contractors have pressured the authority into signing agreements with labor groups and construction companies that obligated the authority to pay far more than it had planned.

Faced with funding shortfalls, the M.T.A. has resorted to borrowing. Nearly 17 percent of its budget now goes to pay down debt — roughly triple what it paid in 1997.

“It’s genuinely shocking how much of every dollar that goes to the M.T.A. is spent on expenses that have nothing to do with running the subway,” said Seth W. Pinsky, the former head of the city’s Economic Development Corporation. “That’s the problem.”

It’s beyond sad to see how much worse the situation has become for the 113-year old system, the third-oldest subway in the world after London and Boston’s MBTA, but by far the largest in the United States. It’s a total failure by elected leaders to serve the very riders the system is supposed to serve.

The examples riders post of the daily dysfunction in their commute are everywhere on Twitter and social media. It’s become kind of a cottage industry to document them. Newsday’s roundup is here.

“It’s like a zoo out there,” wrote one Twitter poster while observing a rider feeding…a racoon.

Here’s one of a banana peel stuck to a retaining wall in the subway. Then again, this could be seen a public service so no one slips on it while going about their business.

And we thought the pole-dancing rat on a Queens-bound train took the cake. Far from it.

Last summer’s train outage of an F train in lower Manhattan for 45 minutes to about an hour, with no air-conditioning, was no laughing matter. Sitting through a stalled train outage for just a few minutes with power cut in a crowded car with no air can turn riders panicky.  After about 10 minutes, it becomes a real-life scare.

In this case, the stalled F train eventually had to be pushed into the Broadway-Lafayette Station. As the train nudged into the station, a passenger caught the scene:

The video clip says it all:

It makes the pole-dancing rat look downright tame by comparison.

Can the transit system be saved? The bigger question, in our view, is whether state and city leaders have the political will to stand up to the special interests who help elect them and then run up costs. The sheer scope of the problems outlined in the articles is stunning. Hang in there, New York.

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