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What New York City’s subway system can learn from ones around the world

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Lessons from Madrid, Stockholm, Tokyo, and more

Power Outage Affects MTA Subway Service Citywide Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

New York subway riders: At least we have Wi-Fi.

That may be the only bright side after years of worsening service and a “summer of hell” for the aging subway system.

Along with delays and derailments—and the constant bickering of Governor Andrew Cuomo and and Mayor Bill de Blasio—only 65 percent of subway trains ran on time during the first five months of 2017, down from 86 percent five years ago, according to MTA figures

The system seems to be physically straining under the weight of its popularity, handling 50 percent more passengers than it did in the ’90s with barely any additions in capacity and new cars.

“The costs of postponing improvements may be even more enormous” than the inconveniences of paying for them. Sadly, that clear-eyed assessment was written in 1981, before the MTA had as much debt (it now owes $40 billion).

Why have things become so hard for the New York subway system, and why do other systems around the world seem to do things better? It’s difficult to make comparisons between different subway systems, especially when it comes to the age and reach of each one.

The city’s own long history of deferred maintenance, especially in the ’70s, as well as its political peculiarities (Cuomo controls arguably the backbone of the city’s transit system, despite his assertions to the contrary), make it its own type of transit system basket case.

But, as Robert Puentes, president and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, a non-partisan think-tank, and an infrastructure and planning expert, says, in this frustrating moment, riders, representatives, and leaders are talking about all the problems.

While it’s impossible to start from scratch and overhaul a 113-year-old mass transit system, comparing New York with its international peers does offer insight into the strengths and weaknesses of different systems, and perhaps some new ideas along the way.

Stockholm, Sweden, and maintenance

In New York City, many subway stations are covered in decades-old tile and layers of grit and grime, often with rusted-out infrastructure. It makes any comparison with Stockholm’s seven metro lines, considered by many to be one of the most beautiful in the world, even more striking. Adorned with public art, Stockholm’s Metro isn’t called “the world's longest art gallery” for nothing.

Many stations feature uncovered rock, with the jagged walls offering an additional aesthetic touch. The Kungsträdgården station even includes a fountain where the elevators meet the platform. Part of it is due to the city’s geography; rough stone allows the city to create au naturale subways stations, something that wouldn’t fly in New York City. (The subterranean schist would be unstable without tiling, which adds to capital and cleaning costs.) Natural cover, it turns out, is not just attractive but is also cost-effective.

Stockholm may have natural and manmade beauty, but its stations—and those of most other systems—have another advantage over New York City when it comes to maintenance: time, notably nights and weekends, when the system shuts down. While a 24-hour subway is convenient, it adds adds complications and costs to any potential repairs.

Stockholm’s T-Centralen station.
Photo by Giuseppe Milo via Flickr

New York City has the highest operating costs in the world, says transit writer Alon Levy, at roughly $10 per train per kilometer—in Europe, it’s about $6 or $7 on average—and that’s mostly due to track maintenance and operations. Even other 24-hour train systems, such as the much smaller Copenhagen, are designed in such a manner that sections can be isolated for work much easier than inside the MTA’s vintage tunnels.

Another reason for Stockholm’s beauty may be its maintenance plan. According to Puentes, the city contracts out maintenance services to a private firm, and structures contracts to meet certain benchmarks. The city’s system manages to save money all while meeting strict standards.

“We’re good at building new stuff in the U.S., but we’re not good at maintaining it,” he says. “Infrastructure isn’t designed to last in perpetuity. Stockholm just makes sure to put these items on its budget and prioritizes them.”

There’s no magic formula here, he says, just sticking with maintenance goals and making them central to your budget.

Madrid and construction cost

New York has trouble maintaining the subway system, but at least it can build cool new stations, right? Who else has cool new Chuck Close murals? Well, it has grown, albeit incredibly slowly and at a cost multiple times more than more other cities across the globe.

Many blame the maintenance issues on the fact that local leaders (namely Governor Andrew Cuomo) in New York are fixated on shiny, new prestige projects instead of everyday, competent operations. But even when New York does create a new station or extension, it comes at an incredible cost.

The 72nd Street Station on the Second Avenue Subway, in Manhattan.
Max Touhey

The first phase of the Second Avenue Subway was most expensive rail construction project in the world. The costs were staggering: at $1.7 billion per kilometer, it was at least five to six times more than projects in other developing countries, according to Levy.

Numerous reasons have been given to explain the cost differential for the MTA: regulations, labor costs, local materials, even more costly design. But that doesn’t explain everything, says Levy. He posits that other countries are better at cost containment and organization. Take Madrid, Spain, where the MetroSur line, finished in 2003, is 41 kilometers long with 28 stations, yet was completed in four years at around $58 million per kilometer.

A station entrance along the Madrid metro system.

How can that be? According to Levy, the Spanish system has numerous advantages. One, they have a better bid and cost system. Overruns and additional materials requests are built into the contract, to help control overrun costs. And most importantly, they build quickly. Levy says Spanish infrastructure turns a typical saying about building—“fast, cheap, and well-made, pick two”—on its head by actually having a bit of all three.

Part of the reason is the way stations are built. There are two main styles of subway construction: cut and cover, where builders rip open a street and build underneath, and the tunnel-boring method, where teams set up large pits, and use large drills to work underground and build new tunnels.

The first is faster and cheaper and typically considered more disruptive, especially to surrounding businesses, but the Spanish go ahead and use it anyway. This makes their projects quicker to build. Levy even believes, in the long run, it actually isn’t as disruptive, because it’s faster and allows small businesses to plan ahead for disruptions. New York City used to do all cut and cover in the early days of the system, but it has become prohibitive as the city and system grew. (The Second Avenue Subway was built using tunnel boring, for example.)

Hong Kong and profitability

If we’re not getting private dollars, then New York City is back to its usual financial self: struggling to make ends meet. Like just about every other mass transit system in the U.S., it’s not making all its revenues at the farebox (that only covers roughly 45 percent of MTA’s budget), and by relying on a patchwork of city, state, and federal dollars, it makes it hard to plan ahead, much less afford capital improvements. Over roughly the last decade, the MTA’s costs have outpaced inflation by 50 percent, making it harder to dig out of any financial hole.

In Asia, another system is literally making billions every year, and it’s using a tool that New York has in abundance: high-priced commercial real estate. In Hong Kong, the Mass Transit Railway Corporation (MTR), which manages the subway, seems to print money compared to its peers; in 2012, it registered $2 billion in profits. Its farebox recovery rate, the percentage of operation costs covered by rider fares, was a staggering 185 percent.

But that’s not the true secret to the system’s financial success. It’s not just the stations; it’s what around them that matters. MTR owns much of the malls, shops, and stores clustered around its stations, and makes deals with owners, including co-ownership agreements and development fees. The MTR, in effect, creates its own transit-oriented commercial developments, funneling shoppers to stores it profits from, while getting them to pay for the trip. The system’s massive real estate holdings give it huge profit potential.

Inside the Causeway Bay metro station in Hong Kong.

All this money allows the system to invest in state-of-the-art equipment and maintain a 99 percent on-time performance (“in 10 years time, everything will have changed,” the system’s operations director told CNN). Hong Kong now utilizes infrared cameras and an artificial intelligence system that maximizes limited overnight maintenance time (the MTA still has signal systems from the ’30s).

Like other comparisons to New York’s subway system, this one is also a bit flawed. For one thing, Hong Kong lacks suburbs, and has a much more captive rail market, with just a small percentage of cars owned for personal use (Hong Kong carries almost the same number of passengers yearly as New York with a third less track mileage). Like super-dense Tokyo, customer concentration means more rides. But when you think of all the valuable land near subways stations in New York, it makes you wonder what would happen if the MTA was more entwined with the real estate game.

Tokyo and efficiency

How do we fix these huge issues? Earlier this year, Cuomo announced that he was considering allowing private sponsors for certain subway stations, to help get private money to clean up at least some of the station’s mess.

But would privatization work? Wouldn’t creeping corporate control over the beloved subway, in the unlikely case it ever happened, turn it into a profit-driven system that loses its egalitarian mission?

If privatization looks anything like Tokyo, then it may not be so bad. In the Japanese metropolis, the city’s rail lines are run in tip-top shape by a handful of private companies.

The Tokyo subway handles twice as many riders as New York City (without 24-hour service), has train systems built after World War II with more efficient signaling systems, and benefit from being within one of the world’s most dense, massive metro area. Tokyo’s metro systems also benefit from land development in and around their stations.