It’s 8:15 AM, and I’m already pissed off. The wait at the Grand Street L train station has become interminable, stretching to 10, then 15, then 20 minutes. Would-be passengers are nearly spilling off of the platform, tapping their feet, shaking their heads, trying to text or email their bosses (without success) that they’re going to be late – again. It’s the second day of my summer internship, and the MTA has made me late.
Once the envy of world, New York’s transit system is now a decrepit mess. Some of its equipment is 50 or even 100 years old. Cost and schedule overruns are so pervasive that they are baked into the plans. It’s so bad that we take the groundbreaking for a subway line that was planned for 75 years to be a victory.
From a 2009 report from the Citizens Budget Commission:
Of the five [MTA] mega projects studied, only the South Ferry Terminal proceeded as scheduled. The Fulton Street Transit Center—set to be completed in 2014—is five years behind schedule and the Second Avenue Subway, East Side Access and extension of the No. 7 line are at least a year behind schedule.
Communication projects were also delayed, including public address/customer information upgrades, which were delayed by four years. Replacement of subway cars was delayed by eight months.
Many of the projects meet initial cost estimates, but some mega projects and signal and communication projects are seriously over budget, the report found. The $1.4 billion Fulton Street terminal is nearly 90% over its initial estimate and the South Ferry terminal ran 24% above estimates. Modernization of signals on the L line, expected to be completed by 2004, is still not done and costs for the upgrade are 51% more than expected.
All the while, we are greeted with naive self-congratulatory ads from the MTA such as “Did you ever think you’d be able to charge a subway ride on a credit card?” Ummm, yes. Yes, I did. Sorry to have such high expectations.
No doubt, there have been significant improvements. The same Citizens Budget Commission reported last year that the NYC subway was the most cost-efficient urban subway system in the nation. (Let’s be fair: this is not very stiff competition.) On the other hand, the report notes, the bus system, the LIRR, and Metro-North are a big mess.
While New York dithers, our competitor cities dig. And dig and dig. Let’s be candid: the vast majority of new subway lines, new commuter rail, new bus routes, and glossy stations that could be art museums are popping up in other countries, not the United States.
On Dec. 31, the Chinese capital opened a new subway line and greatly expanded two others. This year it plans to open four more. A total of eight new lines are under construction. The city started expanding the system in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, and has kept pushing forward ever since. In 2001 it had 33 miles of track. Today it has 231.
Meanwhile, when you hear the completion dates for big U.S. transit projects you often have to calculate your age to figure out if you’ll still be alive. Los Angeles’s Westside subway extension is set to be finished in 2036. Just five years ago, New York’s Second Avenue Subway was supposed to be done by 2020, a goal that seems laughable now.
Don’t misunderstand me: I still prefer the headache of NYC transit to the prospect of strapping myself in for automotive combat in a typical American suburbo-city. On the train, at least, I can almost always find a burrow of unoccupied space between the packed bodies that’s large enough to hold a book. Sometimes I can even nap. And, in the process, I often get to witness slices of human life that are radically different from my own – the middle-aged woman running through her rosary, the middle schooler cramming for her geometry test, the alcoholic barely concealing his bottle, the aspiring model with his frighteningly high cheek bones. It’s better than “Mike & Mark in the Morning” or whatever high fructose junk passes for content between the ads on a car radio. But I have limits. Everyone has limits, even New Yorkers.
The economic cost of our feeble transit system is massive. I haven’t readily found a good study analyzing the enormous opportunity costs of the MTA’s failings (and would love it if someone could cite one for me). By my rough back-of-the-envelope math, each extra minute spent in transit is worth approximately $0.30 in lost wages or leisure to the average New Yorker (or his/her employer). With over 5 million daily weekday rides, if the average commute is 15 minutes longer than it needs to be, that’s a loss of about $24 million per work day or about $6.3 billion per year (excluding weekends).
There are also hidden costs beyond the quantifiable economic ones: for one thing, the painful brutalization of daily life, with conductors yelling and passengers alternatively crowding and then pretending to ignore each other. It is hard to imagine a worse way to begin your morning or a faster route to hating humanity.
There are also the environmental costs. Every horrible subway experience pushes commuters one step closer to getting into a car instead, bringing traffic and pollution to New York’s streets.
Moreover, this kind of mad packing of human beings into tight spaces creates enormous risk: the city won’t let a movie theater overfill lest someone cry “fire” and people get trampled. How much harder would it be to safely evacuate a sardine subway car? We know that New York is always at risk of catastrophe, natural or man-made. Is the city ready to accept hundreds of casualties in a terrorist attack in a train car with a capacity just a fraction of that number?
Finally – and perhaps most destructively – the pervasively pathetic state of our transit system gradually and inevitably saps confidence in public institutions and public life. If we can’t get transit right, why should New Yorkers have faith that we can get housing, environmental protection, sanitation, or any of dozens of critical things that local government does right?
One of the reasons that this city has a uniquely rich and intense public life is that New Yorkers – by necessity – have learned the value of common bonds and common sacrifices. We have no choice but to engage with each other far more than in any other city in this country. My guess is that that commonality generally evolves into progressive politics. It’s a lot harder to ignore the plight of the poor when they are holding out their hand for spare change than when it’s possible to drive through an entire poor neighborhood on a 12-lane superhighway.
But that only goes so far. When public institutions fail as miserably and consistently as our transit system does, it cannot help but demolish New Yorkers’ belief in the viability of truly public life. And, while our subway system has certainly distinguished our city in the past, it is not the subway, but the commitment to doing great things together, that has made New York the extraordinary place it is. It seems that we are at risk of losing both.
We all know that the deplorable condition of New York City’s transit system has its roots in the comparably deplorable condition of local, state, and national politics. In coming posts, I hope to explore the politics of this mess — and find opportunities for all of us to bring improvement to the system that we all rely on.
Thank you for your patience, ladies and gentlemen. We hope to be moving shortly. (But don’t count on it.)