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Busy, Locally: The MTA’s War Against The City of New York

2010 July 14

You are not dreaming, this gloriously empty train only happens at 4AM. (photo credit: Henry Casey)

I don’t think of local news, especially in its televised form, to be worth the attention it receives. Yet now that most of the people who ride the New York City MTA Subway system (especially residents of the outer boroughs) are feeling a horrible pressure right now, my typically outward focus has shifted. The current condition of a day & night commuter below-ground in NYC is possibly at the worst I’ve seen in my 20-some-odd years of living in this town. And of course The MTA has leaked the possibility of things getting worse, instead of better.


The average New Yorker has developed the lowest of standards for what a good day’s commute will afford. The 4/5 trains and the L trains pack tighter than one would think possible. Trains halt between stations for more than a few minutes. These two problems speak of contradictory issues: the former indicates that we do not have enough subway cars, while the latter suggests there are too many trains on the tracks. You eventually stop trying to make these two adjacent issues make sense. On the rare occasion when the trains are going quickly, you frequently encounter break-neck speeds that seem designed to turn strangers into friends by way of collision.


Outside of Albany, whose crisis of budget hasn’t helped anybody, the MTA is public enemy number one in New York City. I can’t remember quite when the MTA Budget Crisis began, because it’s been with us so long that the idea of an MTA not on the brink of oblivion sounds like a fairytale. It’s been the rationale for every fare increase that the city has begrudgingly accepted, as well as the supposed impetus behind the MTA considering a redefinition of the word Unlimited.

Aside from the fact that another fare hike would be horrible for everybody (assuming that the MTA would also offer an “Actually Unlimited” card at a heftier price-tag), some will be hit harder than others. People who are using the subway as a means to get from part-time job to part-time job every day are not likely to be supplied with a commuting plan by their employers.  For them, this change to the system would be a baseball bat to the face, at a moment when they have enough of that every day – and all the while, possibly riding a shrink-wrapped Target Ad. If the humidity doesn’t make you gag, the shamelessness of it all will.

This potential change in policy comes as a surprise, as it may have been thought that the MTA was making enough cuts already. We’ve now seen the end of the line for the W & V trains, as well as the splitting of the baby known as the G train down the middle. The notoriously terrible G train has now been further crippled, cutting its Queens-bound service off one stop after it passes Long Island City. This further reduces the term “Queens-bound G Train” to a “Weapons of Mass Destruction” level of credibility. The only people benefiting from the MTA these days seem to be those who will be paid to be forced out of their Upper East Side apartments to allow for the construction of the Second Avenue subway line.


Yet waiting on a platform, sweating it out in a climate only possible thanks to an abundance of humidity and a dearth of ventilation, is almost a luxury if you’ve had mornings like the L Train veterans had on the 5th of July. Thanks to the frequency of service failures, I’ve set things up so that the MTA notifies me, via e-mail, if there are problems with the L or G lines. So imagine my mood, upon arrival at the Bedford L train stop, to only then find out that the train has been shut down from 8th Avenue (the terminal stop in Manhattan) to Myrtle/Wyckoff (midway into Brooklyn) for construction.

This wasn’t the first time this has happened. Nine times out of ten, barely informative MTA employees point you towards signs that say you’ll have to haul ass to the J/M/Z stop at Marcy. If you’ve never been there before, you now get to hope that the people walking in front of you know where they’re going. Luckily, the first time it happened to me, I bumped into a friend from college who was a veteran of the route.

Thankfully this tale of early morning commuting ends slightly better than those before it. They pointed us towards a shuttle bus operating the route to the J/M/Z station. On this bus, I checked my email to see if I’d missed the notification e-mail about the absence of service. No such e-mail existed. So, while the MTA is getting better at putting band-aids on their wounds, they’re still not quite able to tell people about the wounds in the first place.


How would I fix this? If Albany can’t provide the funds, and reforming the corruption out of the MTA isn’t an option, there’s still one idea left: offer an upscale option or two and bill those who can afford it. There’s the idea of having something like a Luxury Car where the preachers and the bands and the sleepers aren’t allowed, but that feels all too close to the Target Train. The most obvious options I’ve thought of – which would take the least amount of time to implement – are subscription-based WiFi for the platforms and trains, and a swipe-less Metrocard: something in the model of the contact-less credit cards and EZPass. There’s already a “trial” plan in place with Mastercard credit cards, but there needs to be a more open option.


So, yes, things are bad. Things have gotten so horrible that I’m trying to break the MTA’s monopoly on my morning route. I’ve acquired a bicycle, and plan to be able to bike my commute by mid-August. That’s how miserable things are on the trains and the platforms: I’ve resorted to the more strenuous option. What hath the MTA wrought?

Henry Casey was late for work today, waiting for an 8th Avenue bound L train, while he watched five Canarsie bound L trains arrive and leave across the platform.

5 Responses
  1. July 14, 2010

    There have been days when I could have said the same thing about the MBTA, Boston’s equivalent. I’ve lived in Boston only for 3 years, but have been car-less the entire time. My boyfriend has a car, but prior to meeting him, I occasionally rented a zipcar. But for me, the commute these days is not the most pleasant. Luckily I only have to take 2 buses to work these days. But that’s because I’ve given up on the T, and not only because it’s awful while wearing a sling. It is about as packed as you describe the MTA, and already runs every 5 minutes or less during rush hour. I don’t know the statistics, but I’ve heard rumors that during peak time the T runs somewhere around 200%+ capacity, maybe higher.

    But there are now a few things the MBTA is doing that have made a huge difference, and one of the reasons I ride the buses instead. For 17 buses, the MBTA now has real-time tracking. Including the two i typically commute on. And with my android phone, I can easily check to see when my bus is coming to find out if I want to stop for coffee before or after. And in several trains on the red line (runs from south of Boston through UMB, South Station, and all of Cambridge) have cars called “Big Red” which have only a few seats for the elderly and disabled while the rest are standing room.

    And while I’ve never signed up for texts/emails from the MBTA, i know they’re available. And their service alerts include broken escalators and elevators, as well as severe bus or T delays. Now, I realize that MTA has a much larger expanse to cover than our much smaller version.

    We’re suffering from lack of funding, too. But I pay $59/month for unlimited bus and T travel. And Patrick has promised no fare hikes in the immediate future. And I’m one of the holdouts among my friends who will walk or wait the extra 30 minutes in the Boston weather instead of taking a bus. New York can stand to learn a couple things from Boston. We’re still not perfect. But no public transit system will ever be perfect.

  2. July 15, 2010

    The reason there are sometimes too few trains coming to pick people up and too many trains jamming up the tracks is that sparse trains mean scrunched cars, and that means it’ll take the conductors 50 tries to get the doors to close. In other words, the longer the next train takes to come, the longer the first train will take to get out of its way, especially near the terminals of the line. You’re tempted to tell some people (especially the rudest ones) to give up and wait for the next train, because they’re always being assured there’s another one coming, but with the MTA’s track record, you really can’t blame people for not believing that.

    • July 16, 2010

      Jon, thanks for the info on this. Curious, about one thing you said: “the longer the next train takes to come, the longer the first train will take to get out of its way.”

      Shouldn’t the Train 2 behind Train 1 not affect Train 1, since it’s behind and not in front?

      • July 16, 2010

        I think I was referring to the fact that people anticipate long gaps between trains, and so they all try to cram onto the first one they see, thus slowing it down and allowing even sparsely-deployed trains to run up against each other. A better way to put it would’ve been, “the longer the next train is expected to take to come, the longer the first train will take to get out of its way.”

        You actually inspired me to write on my own website about this…it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

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