It might have been the most unsurprising news this side of train traffic ahead of you: Last week, NYC’s non-partisan Independent Budget Office crunched MTA numbers to show that commuters are facing more delays, and those delays are costly.
The amount of average passenger-hours lost to morning rush hour delays increased 45 percent in the year ending May 2017 as compared to 2012. That lost time for delayed riders is worth as much as $307 million a year.
Framing delays as a problem of economic productivity might be the most New York thing this side of the unsurprising news that delays are up. It all started with the savvy politics of Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who asked the IBO to take a look at costs back in May, after a particularly harrowing month of major subway meltdowns. The analysts over at the IBO dutifully got to work, and the project came to the desk of Alan Treffeisen, who ironically regularly experiences the way slow subways can make people’s lives agita-full, talk of money aside.
Delays are personal
Treffeisen’s commute from Ridgewood started getting treacherous a few weeks after he and his co-workers started work on the subway report. Thanks to a big infrastructure project on the Myrtle Avenue line, there was no M service between Metropolitan and Myrtle for much of the summer (other work continues today). So he was resigned to a shuttle bus and then crowds and delays when he finally arrived at a working station — sometimes, too crowded to get on the train. For a commute that usually took about 50 minutes, he started blocking more than an hour to get to the IBO office. “And I can never be really sure I’m going to make it or not,” he says. Talk about writing what you know.
This is what a subway delay looks like, beyond the bold-faced $307 million number — which, Treffeisen’s report notes prominently, is merely one-thirtieth of 1 percent of the city’s annual gross domestic product. Subway woes are not shutting the city down, at least not yet.
Instead, the increased delays are small hindrances for your everyday commuter. You may have already priced them into your day. For example, the total delays in the May figures work out to about 1.3 minutes per passenger. Or, if you assume that the delays impact the 24 percent of passengers who experienced what the MTA calls a “gap in service” over that period, it’s closer to five minutes and 34 seconds for affected passengers.
That’s the delay-range that means you always have to leave just a little earlier than you think you do, and on a particularly bad day — say, 10 or 15 minutes late — you’ll raise eyebrows on the job. So you leave even earlier.
‘Working on it,’ but not done fixing it
Treffeisen notes that some New Yorkers can more easily mitigate those kinds of delays now than in previous slow-subway eras, thanks to technology and the ability to work from home. For him, a delay mostly means staying at work a little later. That’s true for many salaried employees, but doesn’t work for shift or hourly workers, for example.
Take D-train rider Fariba Latifi, 42, who works at Macy’s and leaves at 6:30 or 6:40 a.m. from the Bronx to make sure she’s in midtown at 8. There’s no obvious economic cost to that padding, but it sure hurts the sleep schedule. A few times a year, Latifi says, she’ll be so late she’ll miss part of her first hour. That means some fifteen bucks down the drain, which is meaningful on her tight budget.
“The most important consequences are for the people making very little money,” says John Raskin, executive director of the Riders Alliance, a transit advocacy group. Raskin pointed to the Alliance’s “Woes on the Bus” campaign, which canvassed the tempers of more than 1,000 riders of the beleauguered bus system. Stories included a social worker who missed an appointment with a client in Pelham Bay. Another person said she missed an audition to do background vocals for John Legend.
The MTA says they’re working on it. The agency’s statement on the IBO report touts Chairman Joe Lhota’s Subway Action Plan, also prompted by the bad politics of this springtime’s subway horror show. The plan includes extra maintenance and repair work that may someday reduce delays.
The MTA and the mayor and the governor, who controls the MTA, are still squabbling over how to fund a plan that will do the full necessary systemic rejuvenation work. Maybe that squabbling is evidence over how small that estimated $307 million cost of delays really is. Toss some zeros behind it and see how quick the subways get fixed.