Every day, it seems as though there’s another instance in which the New York City subway fails massively—and, impossibly, the aftermath of those problems also seems to be getting worse. Perhaps you heard about the ride in which a train was stalled for so long that a guy hopped out of the train and walked the tracks to the next station? (Don’t do that, by the way.) Or the one in which commuters were stuck on a train, sans electricity or air conditioning, for over an hour?
Granted, subway breakdowns also seem to be getting more attention thanks to the rise of social media. There are more ways than ever to document when problems happen, and more voices that are ready and willing to broadcast them, which leads to the question: Is subway service actually getting worse, or are more people paying attention now?
Bad news: It’s the former. “I do think [the subway is] measurably worse than [it was] a couple of years ago,” says Ben Kabak, the blogger behind Second Ave. Sagas, though he acknowledges the role that social media is playing in hyping the problems.
“[Social media] is helping make our elected officials pay attention,” says John Raskin, the head of transit advocacy group the Riders Alliance. “[But] it’s not just people’s day-to-day commutes. Subway service has deteriorated noticeably over the last five years.”
The numbers back that up: the MTA periodically releases data tracking its performance, and the numbers are not good. In February, it was revealed that monthly delays had increased to about 70,000—a figure that’s increased dramatically since 2012, when the agency reported about 28,000 delays per month. The Straphangers Campaign, which releases an annual report card for the subway system, has also tracked worsening service vis-à-vis previous years; according to its latest report, car breakdowns have increased, while subway regularity has decreased overall.
According to Raskin, there are three factors that have contributed to the decline in subway service: equipment failures, like recent power outages and signal problems; overcrowding; and a one-two punch of massive delays and unreliable service, which can largely be attributed to the first two issues.
A problem at a single station has the ability to muck up subway service for an entire day; on April 21, for example, the Seventh Avenue station in Midtown lost power, causing delays across much of the system for hours.
The MTA has, at least, acknowledged the severity of these problems: the agency recently ordered a review of the increase in subway delays, in addition to its six-point plan to tackle that issue. But one of the biggest issues—the MTA’s aging signals, some of which date back to when the transit system was created more than a century ago—is also proving to be one of the hardest to fix.
The MTA has committed $2.1 billion from its current capital plan to repair its signals, but as a recent report from the city’s Independent Budget Office notes, many of the scheduled fixes are happening behind schedule, if they’ve been started at all. Per the report, the current capital plan has 14 signal-related projects scheduled to begin by the end of 2017—more than half of which are now delayed. “They don’t have a plan yet to speed up the replacement of signals sooner than the next few decades,” notes Kabak, “and there’s a groundswell of voices calling on them to improve service sooner than they can.”
And according to Raskin, “the problem is not that the MTA doesn’t know how to run trains. The problem is that every governor in a generation has underinvested in public transit.” That includes Governor Andrew Cuomo, who Raskin says has “ignored deteriorating transit service” in favor of funding big-ticket projects like the first segment of the Second Avenue Subway.
Raskin and the Riders Alliance—along with a growing chorus of voices, both on and off Twitter—have been particularly pointed in their criticism of Cuomo, who was initially less than vocal about this year’s uptick in service disruptions, and has occasionally claimed that he’s not in charge of the subway. (He is, for the record.) In recent weeks, Cuomo has put forth more of an effort into addressing the subway’s meltdown, and recently asked former MTA chairman Joe Lhota to step back into that role, noting his “proven track record needed to address the enormous challenges facing the nation’s largest mass transportation system.”
Kabak is optimistic about the choice. “The MTA needs a crisis manager,” he explains. “Lhota knows what the agency is capable of. He knows the challenges it’s facing.” And as Kabak notes with a laugh, “he actually rides the subway”—something both Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio have been criticized for not doing regularly.
Raskin is also cautiously optimistic, but notes that “no chairman or CEO can substitute for leadership from the governor.” He continues, “the change we need is not going to come unless riders demand it until we get what we need from the governor and state lawmakers.”
He proposes that riders keep doing what they’re doing: make their voices heard when issues arise. “Take advantage of newfound Wi-Fi service,” Raskin says. “Tweet and email Governor Cuomo to make sure he understands that riders won’t go away.” That shouldn’t be too much of a problem.