Another day, another horrendous commute.
Delays cascaded for hours after a track fire at 145th Street on Monday. Pictures of straphangers perched precariously on a bridge over the 168th Street tracks swirled around social media; commuters were packed together like in the background of a Renaissance painting. No angels helped out here.
And regarding track fires: the MTA included the issue in its six-point plan for fixing the subways in May, touting the immediate deployment of new machines to vacuum up track trash. Now, the MTA says it will add more.
It gets to the point where you might want to throw up your hands at long-term problems and consider telecommuting. Because that’s not really an option for most people, we reached out to Yonah Freemark for some perspective. Freemark is a city planner who has worked on and studied transit issues around the world and has persistently pushed the idea that the MTA’s problems are real and deeper than simple overcrowding. Now a Ph.d student at MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning, Freemark spoke to amNew York about the subway’s big problems, tough solutions — perhaps including pullback from all-day everyday service — and (some) reasons to have faith.
Is the subway worse than ever, or are we just tweeting about it?
This is not a system that is beyond repair or anything of that sort. There’s no question that this is not the worst that it’s ever been. It’s pretty evident that the system in the 1980s was a very difficult system for people to use. It was very unreliable. There was a sense of incivility on board trains and waiting in stations. That’s certainly not the experience in today’s New York.
But I would say that key statistics like mean distance between failure [for train cars] do bear out a significant decline in service over the last several years that is not matched by the rise in ridership that the MTA has been claiming. There’s something about the maintenance of the vehicles and track that’s causing them to be not as reliable as they were just a few years ago.
What are some of the things the MTA has done wrong?
One of the most important things the MTA has to confront right now is why a $30 billion capital program over five years is actually buying so little. The $4.5 billion for the first phase of the Second Avenue Subway is unimaginably high compared to any subway line in the entire world. The Line 15 metro that is currently under construction in Paris is 20.5 miles entirely underground, 16 stations, and the cost of the tunnel and the stations itself is $4.5 billion before the cost of track and buying trains . . . The Second Avenue Subway is less than 2 miles and only 4 stations.
What about Gov. Andrew Cuomo?
There has been some fair criticism of the governor for prioritizing visible things — like the reconstruction of Penn Station, the creation of Moynihan Station, the World Trade Center transportation hub — rather than the less visible things like the signals on the train lines [which guide the trains].
But I do want to be clear that some of those [visible] things are very important for making people not feeling like they’re entering a depressive atmosphere. The role of the countdown clocks that should be coming online by the end of this year is a huge benefit to the subway system. It means you can wait above ground for your trains because you’ll know when your train is coming.
That really is a game changing experience for the system.
What should be done on the subways now?
There’s been a lot of talk about the signal systems on the train lines and that is a huge issue.
A fundamental problem is that it’s very difficult to upgrade the system because of its 24-hour nature, which is definitely rare around the world. Paris and London do not have 24-hour service, allowing you to do construction and make repairs overnight. So there’s no question that that makes NYC a very special thing.
But in cases where it is possible to shut down the line to do a massive reconstruction, I think it’s actually worth it. If it’s possible to do a five-month shutdown of a certain line so you can totally repair it, then you may actually get a really big benefit if paired with adequate replacement bus and subway service. And that’s something we’ll be able to see with the shutdown of the L tunnel in 2019.
What can be done about track fires, like the one that started Monday’s mess?
Track fires are pretty common. One way to avoid that is to block the tracks by installing platform doors. You can do that with automated trains, which would be even more advanced than the signal system NYC is pursuing.
So would signalling solve everything?
No. Transit systems are like living organisms: They need constant maintenance and tender love and care, no different from any city park or city service. If you make a big investment that’s great but you can’t stop maintaining what you have.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.