Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Temperatures on New York City transit platforms are reaching past 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Many cars aren’t much better. How did we get here?
PSA for the New York City subway crowd: Overheated platforms are a health hazard, on and off of peak commuter hours. On Thursday, temperatures inside at least one of the busiest stations reached 104 degrees Fahrenheit—nearly twenty degrees warmer than the high in Central Park.
The Regional Plan Association, an urban planning think tank for the greater metropolitan area, took a thermometer around the system’s 16 busiest stations, plus a few more for good measure, and shared the data with CityLab. A platform at Union Square Station had the 104-degree reading at 1 p.m., which was the hottest they found, although Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall and Columbus Circle weren’t far off at 102 and 101 degrees, at around 10 and 11 a.m., respectively. Twelve out of the 16 busiest stops boiled at or over the 90-degree mark in the late morning and early afternoon.
No, this is nothing new. Local reporters have been chronicling unpleasantly oven-like conditions for years, and the city’s robust media workforce has never been shy about complaining about their commutes. But with a heat wave currently strangling the city, they took special notice this week.
Today’s subway status: hot garbage— Chris Hayes (@chrislhayes) August 8, 2018
One might think that subway stations would offer crisp respite to sweaty New Yorkers, being underground and all. But you’d be wrong. Heat doesn’t only “rise”—it just diffuses to cooler areas, which can include below-ground spaces. Plus, only a few of the city’s 472 stations are equipped with air conditioning; most rely on a passive ventilation system better known for their Marilyn Monroe moments above ground. This system was built in the days before AC, and the MTA says it’s not possible to squeeze the station-cooling machinery that other metro systems have inside New York’s narrow tunnels. Meanwhile, the units that cool passengers inside cars actually shed heat into the stations as trains pass through.
That onboard air-conditioning can fail, too. The MTA has also seen a rising number of complaints about overheated cars in recent years. In today’s issue of Signal Problems, his indispensable newsletter focused on subway accountability, the journalist Aaron Gordon reports that “about two percent of all subway cars in service on any given day might not have working A/C,” according to the MTA. That means at least 100 cars are roasting passengers on any given day this summer.
Combine that with the extreme overcrowding that came with a week of exceptionally poor on-time performance on some of the busiest train lines, and I am here to tell you that the subway gets really, really freaking hot. That’s dangerous if you’re a young kid, an elderly person, have a medical intolerance to heat, or are otherwise vulnerable.
Or, um, if you are an able-bodied, youngish person in generally good health who’d just missed breakfast. That was me on Tuesday morning, inside a packed and sweltering M train without any air moving. (I didn’t take down the car number, unfortunately, so hard to know what its AC status was, for sure.) We’d been delayed in Bushwick a good 40 minutes due to a stalled J train ahead of us, and I was getting lightheaded. I’d had a glass of water before rushing out of the house, thinking I’d get to coffee and oatmeal within an hour. But there I was, still, standing with hundreds of other overheated riders. I put my head against the pole I was gripping, felt my ears get a bit buzzy, and blacked out. I kind of remember hearing someone saying, “whoa, whoa!,” as my knees turned to rubber. Such fun.
You might ask yourself, “What happens when you suddenly lose consciousness on the New York City subway?” In my case, it triggered a sudden and heartening display of civility: Multiple strangers must have immediately grabbed to hold me up. I didn’t fall; I came to within seconds on a suddenly cleared seat, with people asking if I was OK.
I was fine—no EMT needed. This didn’t rise to dreaded “sick passenger” status (reports of which are also rising), so I didn’t drag fellow riders any further into the MTA-delay spiral. But imagine how unsafe it would be to then navigate through 100-degree platforms if I had needed to get medical assistance, for myself or someone else. And how much harder that would be for someone using a cane, wheelchair, or stroller. All this, as the climate warms and the population ages.
The MTA is aware of how hot the stations are (but don’t stop tweeting your rage-face selfies at them). And it has said it’s planning to fix busted AC systems on the cars as part of the Subway Action Plan, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s $836 million strategy to “stabilize and improve the subway system and lay the foundation for modernizing the New York City Subway.”
“Climate control didn’t exist when the subway system was built more than a century ago, and the air conditioning units on trains discharge a lot of heat into tunnels and stations,” said Andrei Berman, an MTA spokesperson, in a statement. “We’re working hard to reduce delays so we can get our customers off the platforms and on their way in an air conditioned car.”
But by many accounts, commuters have not seen improvements a year after the plan’s launch, in terms of service or temperature safety, let’s say. Cars that were hot last summer are hot this summer.
Post-faint, if I’d really needed to, I could have jumped out and called a Lyft, just as many riders do to flee “regular” service delays. But not everyone has that option. Best advice? Carry water, eat a Clif bar, and if you feel dizzy, sit folded over your knees to get the blood rushing to your brain. After all, you’ll need it for holding the MTA accountable.