Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
Yes, the trains are packed. But don’t blame the victims of the city’s transit meltdown.
The New York City Subway, scoliotic backbone of the country’s most powerful urban economy, is snapping. On-time performance has dropped from 85 percent in 2011 to 63 percent today. A dissection of the issue in today’s New York Times shows that trend hitting every subway line over the past 10 years, with only a handful of routes running with on-time rates above 70 percent.
What gives? The system’s antiquated signals are one culprit, a systemic issue that the Times has investigated in depth. But decrepit technology isn’t the main issue, according to the article:
The major cause of subway delays is a factor that basically did not exist 15 years ago: overcrowding. The subway is a victim of its own success and the city's resurgence. Large crowds slow down trains, which creates more crowding in a vicious circle that takes hours to unwind during every rush.
No question, crowded trains take longer to load, and the longer they take, the greater the risk of delay. But pointing to crowds—human beings using the service as intended—as a cause of the MTA’s unreliability is like shaming Millennials for loving avocado toast too much to afford homes, as one Twitter user observed. It’s victim-blaming, and avoids the root of the problem: political will.
Notice how other major systems have dealt with growing ridership in recent years. Paris has responded to such spikes with a seamless expansion of its tram system and systematically automating its lines. Booming London has acquired advanced gate technology for speedier boardings and roomier accordion-style cars; it’s also managed to replace its defunct signals much faster than New York predicts it’ll be able to.
But that’s Europe, you may protest, where people actually like to pay for public goods.
OK, so let’s look at Chicago, which offers another counterargument to the overcrowding explanation. The transportation consultant and analyst Yonah Freemark tweeted a chart that shows a “mismatch” between ridership and system capacity on Chicago’s trains that’s similar to New York’s. But you don’t hear many CTA riders complaining about unacceptable service, as he notes. That’s probably because city has made $8 billion of systemwide investments in transit since 2011, including top-to-bottom rebuilds of multiple lines. The CTA has taken responsibility for the problems that besieged it earlier this century. It is doing its job. And customer satisfaction is high.
New York’s system needs trains that run more often, cars that accommodate more people, and more lines to move a bulging population. It will cost billions, and take decades, but this is not new information. What progress has been made? In December, the MTA partially completed the most expensive per-mile subway project in the world, which only took a century. In 2014, it rebuilt and rebranded a single station in downtown Manhattan as a transit-oriented shopping mall, at the cost of $1.4 billion. (The Fulton Center is adjacent to the Port Authority’s $4 billion World Trade Center PATH station,* a related “soaring symbol of boondoggle.”) In Brooklyn, private developers are now planning a streetcar that seems to be positioned for maximal uselessness for locals, who’ve long lacked good north-south connections in the borough.
What hasn’t manifested is a plan to bring New York City transit into the 21st century, or a way to pay for it.
In fairness, the city’s subway system is the only large system in the world that operates all of its stations for 24 hours a day. The challenge of replacing signals and building tracks would not be a simple proposition anywhere, and the expectation of constant service makes it a special challenge in New York.
But the only truly uniquely debilitating thing about New York’s subway system is the politics of its operation. The state, not the city, controls the subway. Optics suggests otherwise, an arrangement designed in the days of Robert Moses and Nelson Rockefeller that has helped deflect accountability for all.
That is the case today, as state and city leaders spitball blame at one another. Governor Andrew Cuomo laps up attention at splashy subway ribbon-cuttings, points to local leaders at moments of failure, and recently publicized his plan to “take back control” of the MTA by giving the state heavier representation on its control board. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio fires back with the truth: The governor ultimately runs the MTA, and must be the one with a plan to fix it.
It’s promising that the well-respected Joe Lhota is back aboard as MTA chairman; the agency’s bureaucratic inertia needs help, too. The governor recently unveiled a six-point strategy that addresses some short-term challenges, and committed $8 billion to MTA’s $29.5 billion capital improvement fund. The city also contributes to this fund. But how all of these projects will be financed is uncertain, and bickering between mayor and governor is unlikely to end.
The political aversion to responsibility was on display on Tuesday. Dozens were injured when two A-train cars lurched off their tracks in Harlem. The train collided with a replacement rail that a worker had left unbolted; it not a matter of faulty infrastructure, per se, according to the MTA, but “human error.” Hundreds of disoriented, terrified passengers streamed into the darkness of the tunnels with the assistance of firefighters, police, MTA workers, and one another. Nearly 40 were sent to the hospital, treated for injuries that weren’t life-threatening—but could have been.
Neither de Blasio nor Cuomo, the man indisputably in charge, showed up. New Yorkers aren’t the subway’s problem. It’s the politicians who don’t seem to feel responsible for them.
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly suggested that the MTA built the $4 billion World Trade Center PATH Station.