MTA chairman Joe Lhota took over New York’s most thankless job in June on the eve of the “summer of hell.”
One of his first orders of business: Telling the agency it had to do more to make the subways better. So far so good. He was vocal and present in Harlem after an A train derailed last month. Great.
On Tuesday, after a trash track fire near West 145th Street disrupted Monday’s commute, he said the agency was considering what food is appropriate in the subways.
Stop right there.
We’ve been down this road before. Previous attempts to take away our late-night underground falafel were sent back to the kitchen quickly, such as when MTA boardmembers got annoyed at riders fighting over spaghetti in 2011. Lhota himself noted the impact banning food would have on minority communities in 2012, citing kids with long rides eating breakfast on the train.
Since then, the subways have gotten more delay-prone and riders have grown more vocal and agitated. Lhota and Gov. Andrew Cuomo are more and more searching for ways to make things right again, which has sadly led us to the current blame-the-victim approach.
Sure, riders sometimes throw food-related garbage into the tracks (and they shouldn’t), but in the last year the MTA says track fires are down some 90 percent from 1981. The fires aren’t the reasons for the larger system’s train woes.
The agency has “bigger priorities” than track trash, says Jaqi Cohen of the advocacy group Straphangers Campaign. You depositing your litter correctly won’t suddenly make the trains run perfectly. “Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of the MTA and the governor to improve subway service,” says Cohen.
The subway problems New Yorkers wake up to and go home with every day come from the crowded system but also the failure over time to invest in modern signals and train infrastructure. No need to blame potential or actual bad behavior for larger woes, reminiscent of how last year the MTA expressed uncertainty about simpler payment systems that would help speed along buses out of fear of fare evasion. Just make the equipment work and don’t add another behavior to police minimally (and potentially selectively) on the subway. In 2016, the NYPD recorded 15 violations of the obscure MTA rule against having “liquid in an open container.”
Let us consume in peace the sustenance that makes our subway burden more bearable. From the kids kept a little more complacent due to their juicebox or McDonald’s Happy Meal, to the rider nourished by the quick-thinking purchase of an indestructible, plastic-wrapped bodega muffin before taking the 1 to the end of the line. From the neat cold cut sandwich made at home to the warm, aromatic platter of rice and chicken with extra containers of hot sauce and white sauce. Afterward, of course, we’ll dispose of the remains carefully in a subway platform trash can.
Maybe you’re one of those shyer souls who doesn’t like eating while people are looking at you. Well this screed is for you, too, protecting your right to surreptitiously nibble on a Powerbar while hiding in the priority-seating corner; to spit out your sunflower seeds meditatively into a shopping bag; to sip on a necessary cup of coffee even if, heaven forbid, you forgot the lid. Maybe things get messy, but a little sticky soda isn’t the worst thing to be found on a seat, riders know.
At least you’ll be provisioned when the proverbial earlier incident occurs — and that’s the real challenge at hand for Lhota, messes aside.