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Today’s subway meltdown highlights the MTA’s larger communications problem

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The need for clear communication of subway service changes has never been greater

This morning, commuters trying to get out of south Brooklyn were met with heavy delays, and in one case, a literal wall blocking off trains, due to track work on the N line between the 36th and 59th street stations in Sunset Park. As an added bonus, whoever was manning the MTA’s Twitter account and app wasn’t told about the trackwork, leaving subway riders in the dark about what was going on and short on time to make alternate travel plans.

Today’s snafu seemed unprecedented even for the MTA, as people learned in real time that the N train would make local stops between 59th and 36th through December of this year (or perhaps even summer 2019). If you didn’t go to a community board meeting in Sunset Park in June, today’s meltdown might have been the first time you heard about the planned work.

The MTA, for its part, explained as clearly as they could what exactly went wrong with its internal communications, in which they somehow confused “scheduled” work with “planned” work, and therefore didn’t get the memo to alert anyone to it before it became a meme (a mistake attributable to a typo, according to the Village Voice).

The key to any good relationship, experts will tell you, is communication. Talking about things, making sure you’re not hiding anything—say, a simmering resentment of your partner’s actions, or track work that ambushes riders who have to get somewhere in the morning. Unfortunately for straphangers, the MTA’s long-running problem with relaying subway changes clearly doesn’t seem to be going away, even in non-emergency conditions.

Even if the MTA has “made a lot of big strides in communication,” as MTA flack Jon Weinstein put it in a Tweet, today’s meltdown isn’t anything new. You can find the agency dropping the ball, for instance, when it doesn’t explain to customers that problems for one line means people should try an alternate route instead of getting stuck on a bridge. You can see it when a New York native calls the agency’s service change information “incomprehensible.” You can see it in a blog post from Ben Kabak from seven years ago that went over the various ways in which the MTA didn’t communicate service changes to riders in real-time, and when they did, they gave wrong information. You can see it in the agency’s inability to tell a commuter (who was also caught in today’s mess) when planned work is supposed to end despite the fact that it’s planned “for a specific duration of time.”

Improving communications seems to be a priority for NYCT chief Andy Byford; the agency recently hired its first Chief Customer Officer, and ‘clear communication of reasons for closures, regular updates on progress, and accessible information about alternate service’ is one of the improvements he’s going for with the Fast Forward plan, though a timeline for fully implementing that plan (or funding for it) has yet to be announced.

And there’s a huge problem with relying on Twitter as a primary method of communicating changes, according to Jaqi Cohen from the Straphangers Campaign. Cohen commended the agency for its more responsive presence on the platform—the NYCTSubway account has been far more active lately—but pointed out that “many riders don’t have Twitter or access to a smartphone, and even if they do, that information is useless to someone stuck in a tunnel in between stations without service.”

Council Member Justin Brannan, who happened to be dealing with the same subway issues as everyone else trying to make it to work from Bay Ridge, was complimentary of Byford’s efforts to turn around what he called the “rusted and megalithic” ship that is the MTA in a statement he gave to Curbed. But there was still some weariness in the statement, in which Brannan also said, “I think commuters deserve to know what’s happening at the very, very least.”