A tough (if imperfect) new analysis by the New York State Comptroller raises concerns.

If you’ve had the sneaking suspicion that service on the New York City subway has been slower the past couple years, the New York State Comptroller has some vindication for you. Last week Thomas DiNapoli’s office released an analysis of the subway’s on-time performance—with “on-time” defined as reaching the end of the line within five minutes of scheduled arrival—in 2013 and 2014. The charted results (spotted by Ben Kabak) point to a “persistent decline”:

NY State Comptroller’s Office

DiNapoli’s office reports that the subway failed to meet its on-time goal, set at 91.9 percent, either year. In 2013, the average on-time performance was around 80 percent during the week and 85 percent on weekdays; in 2014 those rates dropped to 74 percent and 81 percent, respectively. Worse yet, according to the report, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that operates the subway lowered its on-time goal to 75 percent out of the blue in March 2015—against its typical practice or industry standards:

Subways practice is to set the goal based on a three-year average with a 5 percent improvement, but no lower than the previous year’s goal. …

We reviewed the OTP goals for other major transportation agencies in the U.S., and none had an OTP goal below 90 percent.

From March 2013 to March 2014 there were nearly 500,000 total delays, according to the report. We’ve charted them below by individual line:

CityLab

Nearly two-thirds of these delays met the comptroller’s definition of “controllable”—in other words, something MTA could have avoided with better planning or response. These included delays caused by right-of-way conflicts, the presence of track gangs doing repairs, equipment problems with the subway cars themselves, or plain old employee error. The report concludes by pushing MTA to identify its big causes of delay and craft “corrective action plans” to address them.

NY State Comptroller’s Office

Wait time is what matters

Taken at face value the numbers are clear and concerning: New York City subways are taking longer to finish their routes than they did a couple years back. But on-time performance is an imperfect measure of service that often fails to capture a rider’s actual experience using transit. Few New York City riders know when a train is officially “scheduled” to arrive at the end of the line, nor should they care. What matters to them is how long they wait on the platform.

The MTA knows as much, so in the agency’s rebuttal to the comptroller report, it explains that its primary service goal “is on evenness of service, not on schedule adherence at the arriving terminal location”:

This is our focus because, generally speaking, our customers—relatively few of whom travel all the way to a terminal station—are more significantly affected by the time they wait for a train at a station along the route rather than the difference between the actual and scheduled arrival time at terminal stations. For example, a train that arrives seven minutes late at its terminal is considered late and this is reflected in On-Time Performance statistics. However, that same train may have been consistently three minutes behind the preceding train, providing evenly spaced and frequent service to customers along the route.

As a result, the MTA—along with other major transit agencies—has moved away from on-time performance toward a more rider-friendly service metric. In the MTA’s case that’s called a “Wait Assessment” indicator, and it shows whether or not train service is even along a route. If indicators suggest waits are uneven, the agency can employ some control measures to balance things out—holding a train or having it skip a station, for instance.

Here’s what the wait assessment of the 6 train looks like from the agency’s perspective, via a 2015 slideshow:

NY State Comptroller’s Office / MTA

Fixes require funding

The MTA’s focus on wait assessment is a fair one, but that doesn’t mean it’s been effective. The comptroller’s office points out that wait assessment has also “been on the decline”—going from 80 percent in 2013 to 79 percent in 2014, with some lines dipping as low as 67 percent. Some correlation between on-time rate and wait assessment makes sense: if a train can’t finish its route as scheduled, it stands to reason riders are waiting somewhere along the line.

Still, contrary to the comptroller’s overall conclusions, the MTA says it does already closely track sources of delay, and that it’s arrived at three main causes:

  1. Crowding and ridership: 40 percent of delay in 2014. Ridership is up—way up. That’s great for revenue but tough for crowding. Even a short delay of a rider holding open a door can set a train behind schedule and cause it to bunch up with another train behind it. With 15 of 20 lines at track capacity (below), there’s little the MTA can do to alleviate this type of crowding.
  2. Ongoing maintenance: 26 percent. These are things like repairing aging infrastructure. Sometimes this maintenance is done during off-hours or route closures, but much of it gets done during regular service operation, which requires trains to slow down through work zones.
  3. Unplanned work: 22 percent. These delays are the result of incidents like power outages or signal failures that need immediate attention.
Subway lines in red have reached peak track capacity and peak train capacity (room for passengers); those in yellow have reached peak track; those in green have available capacity for both tracks and trains. (NY State Comptroller’s Office / MTA)

System expansions, equipment upgrades, and better maintenance aren’t easy problems to resolve. On the contrary, the MTA will require loads of long-term funding to stay ahead of these needs—the very type of support DiNapoli’s boss, Governor Andrew Cuomo, has not been quick to provide. If New York State really does want to see better service from the New York City subway, its performance on the funding discussion should be up for evaluation, too.

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