By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
I’m no expert on the New York subway system, although its map makes fine wall art, and Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda’s (“iconic“) 1970 New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual is said to be a modernist masterpiece (besides delivering wonderfully functional signage and wayfindig, plus genius branding). But the trains, the cars, the tunnels, the signals…. There are some problems. Two tweets sum up — as so much goes — the contrast between what the United States does, and what the rest of the world can do. First, the tweet that got me thinking about this post:
Has @MTA given up on the Borough Hall 4/5 station? It's well beyond visual decay and is in structural distress.
Drip pans collect water everywhere as walls and columns slowly erode over the decades. This just can't be safe. pic.twitter.com/dMOZwGgPQf
— Jason Rabinowitz (@AirlineFlyer) August 4, 2018
Moscow subway stations by David Burdeny pic.twitter.com/BT1XMsCgjs
— Anne Mortier (@AnneMortier1) March 3, 2018
I’m sure that the Moscow subway — soon to expand; also, subway dogs! — has its own dank corners, but though I looked for a Muscovite equivalent of the shameful Borough Hall station, I couldn’t find one (a litany of complaints, most of which seem pretty minor). Russia has an economy half the size of California’s. So why do Muscovite subway travellers have it so much better than New Yorkers? I’m not sure I can answer that question; at the end of the post I will confess my failure to achieve a state of non-bafflement. Neverthess, New York is a world city, a “primary node” in “our” globalized world, and so it’s worth taking a look at how its most essential transport system got into such a mess. In this post, I’ll look at why the New York subway system is so important. Then I’ll look at infrastructure problems, environmental problems, and the role of government, and conclude.
The New York Subway System Is Critical Infrastructure
For those of you who are, like me, from out of town, some numbers:
Opened in 1904, the New York City Subway is one of the world’s oldest public transit systems, one of the world’s most used metro systems, and the metro system with the most stations. It offers service 24 hours per day on every day of the year, though some routes may operate only part-time.
The New York City Subway is the largest rapid transit system in the world by number of stations, with 472 stations in operation (424 if stations connected by transfers are counted as single stations).
The system is also one of the world’s longest. Overall, the system contains 236 miles (380 km) of routes, translating into 665 miles (1,070 km) of revenue track; and a total of 850 miles (1,370 km) including non-revenue trackage.
By annual ridership, the New York City Subway is the busiest rapid transit rail system in both the Western Hemisphere and the Western world, as well as the seventh busiest rapid transit rail system in the world; only the metro (subway) systems in Beijing, Shanghai, Seoul, Tokyo, Guangzhou, and Moscow record higher annual ridership. In 2017, the subway delivered over 1.27 billion rides, averaging approximately 5.5 million daily rides on weekdays and a combined 5.7 million rides each weekend (3.2 million on Saturdays; 2.5 million on Sundays). On September 23, 2014, more than 6.1 million people rode the subway system, establishing the highest single-day ridership since ridership was regularly monitored in 1985.
The Subway is critical to New York City’s economy, hence to New York State’s, hence to the nation. The Atlantic:
Today, subway cars in New York carry passengers on over 5 million rides each day. [If it ceased to function], more than half the city’s population could find itself without a way to get to work, bringing the city’s $4 billion a day economy to a grinding halt.
And yet, service levels have significantly deteriorated. Some anecdotes from Vox (in 2017):
New York’s subway is in . After years of growing ridership, use of the system took a dip in 2016, with further declines this year. Last month saw a train sit in the tunnel in sweltering heat for 45 minutes and a derailment with dozens of injuries. The media describes the situation as hell (Slate), a meltdown (Curbed), or a crisis (NBC).
And the Atlantic:
Subway delays have more than doubled over a five-year period. Track fires increased.
And from the Gothamist, some numbers:
Train delays—thanks to a cocktail of aging infrastructure and crowded platforms—are the norm, not the exception. Twitter serves as proof of point any given Monday morning, and new MTA statistics indicate that conditions are getting worse, not better. A NY Times analysis of recently-release data shows that delays are hovering at around 70,000 per month, up from 28,000 per month in 2012.
More than a third of those delays are due to overcrowding, which caused 30,000 delays last November. Subway cars also traveled an average of 120,000 miles between breakdowns last November, compared to 200,000 miles in 2010. Last year, the MTA set a 75 percent on-time arrival goal for each train on the line. By November, 2 trains were arriving on time only 36.6 percent of the time; 6 trains 49.2 percent.
At this point, I should note that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, the First of His Name, declared a state of emergency for the Subway system in 2017, and has proposed a $37 billion subway fix plan, of which he expects the City to pay half. Since the perspective of this post is “How we got here,” rather than the bright future that is, presumably, ahead, I’ll postpone consideration of this scheme until a later date, though of course readers are free to add their own assessments in comments. That said, let’s turn to infrastructure as it is today:
Infrastructure Problems with the New York Subway System
The cars. From The Atlantic:
The 1960s-era Brightliners, those stainless-steel C-train cars, break down constantly—every 33,000 miles on average, The New York Times recently reported. That’s compared with the average subway car, which breaks down every 400,000 miles, and the newest cars, which break down every 750,000 miles, according to the newspaper.
The tunnels. If the subway has capacity problems, one solution would be to take a cue from Moscow, and build more lines. That’s not happening, CityLab:
Since December 16, 1940, New York has not opened another new subway line, aside from a handful of small extensions and connections. Unlike most other great cities, New York’s rapid transit system remains frozen in time: Commuters on their iPhones are standing in stations scarcely changed from nearly 80 years ago.
Indeed, in some ways, things have moved backward. The network is actually considerably smaller than it was during the Second World War, and today’s six million daily riders are facing constant delays, infrastructure failures, and alarmingly crowded cars and platforms.
(The CityLab article is an excellent historical overview, with a timeline.) The signaling system. From the New York Daily News, with so much amazing detail I can’t forbear to quote a lot:
Even something as basic as a cable is an antique.
Workers popped open a junction box to show a 70-year-old cloth-covered cable, due for the scrap heap next year, connected to newer rubber-covered wires.
Dispatchers in the tower room of the station monitored train locations on a massive electromechanical machine half as big as the room itself.
Green and blue lights moved across white lines against a blackboard as big as an overhead deli menu.
Below the lights, the machine featured a row of red and black levers that must be manually pulled and pushed to control switches and signals on the tracks.
In a musty room tucked away in the back, drab green cabinets house 120-volt signal relays that communicate between the tower room machines and equipment on the tracks.
Habersham used a light on his cell phone and squinted to read the dates scrawled on the machines. Some still bore the name of the original manufacturer, General Railway Signal Co.
One relay was dated April 2, 1940. A second relay machine from 1940 was since refurbished — 40 years ago, in 1977.
When there’s a breakdown, it’s up to NYC Transit to fix it — General Railway Signal Co. isn’t around anymore to provide tech support.
And yes, the cables in this room are also covered in cloth that’s highly flammable, making the area a potential tinderbox that would take the train system down with it if it caught fire. The MTA in 2005 experienced such a blaze in a signal relay room at Chambers St. on the A and C lines.>
(Reminds me of my wonderful old American Flyer tinplate trainset. Wonderful, but not for a system that handles 5 million people a day!)
Enviromental Problems with the New York Subway System
The subway’s crippling, century-old infrastructure is not the only reason behind the system’s constant delays and disruptions. The other problem involves about 13 million gallons of water, or more depending on the rainfall, that gets pumped out from underground on a nearly daily basis…. After ineffectively using only sandbags and plywood to fight flooding in the past, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has turned to more high-tech solutions, like flood-proof doors and inflatable gaskets, which will be a part of its $800 million emergency action plan to fix the subway.
And then there’s Hurricane Sandy. From the Wall Street Journal, “Salt Water Puts Subway ‘in Jeopardy’“:
The storm that has wreaked havoc along the East Coast struck a historic blow to one of New York City’s most vulnerable—and vital—points: the subway system.
A storm surge driven by the remains of Hurricane Sandy sent seawater pouring into at least six under-river tunnels of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s subway system Monday night…
After the flooding, its extent not yet fully measured, the threat of an extended shutdown loomed over a system that carries 5.2 million passengers a day and is essential to the city’s economy.
The subway system is “in jeopardy,” MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota said Monday. “Our subway system and salt water do not mix.”
Salt can eat at motors, metal fasteners and the electronic parts, some many decades old, that keep the system running. Salt water, and the deposits it leaves behind, degrades the relays that run the signal system, preventing train collisions.
Salt water also conducts electricity, which can exacerbate damage to signals if the system isn’t powered down before a flood.
Late Monday night, an MTA spokesman confirmed that floodwater had breached the subway system flooding all five tunnels between lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, as well as the Steinway Tube between Midtown and Queens. Railyards also flooded, and the A train bridge in the North Channel in Jamaica Bay was underwater after the surge.
The speed of recovery would depend on whether floodwaters damaged any of the rest of the 14 subway tunnels under the Harlem and East Rivers, where the system is most exposed to catastrophic flooding.
This time around, New York dodged a bullet. But there will be plenty more bullets to dodge in the future! Climate change means ocean rise (handy maps), and that means more flooding, more often. From the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Impact of climate change on New York City’s coastal flood hazard: Increasing flood heights from the preindustrial to 2300 CE,” the abstract:
We combine downscaled tropical cyclones, storm-surge models, and probabilistic sea-level rise projections to assess flood hazard associated with changing storm characteristics and sea-level rise in New York City from the preindustrial era to 2300. Compensation between increased storm intensity and offshore shifts in storm tracks causes minimal change in modeled storm-surge heights through 2300. However, projected sea-level rise leads to large increases in future overall flood heights associated with tropical cyclones in New York City. Consequently, .
(Hurricane Sandy was a 260-y storm.) So lay in those flashlights and rain slickers….
Government and the New York Subway System
In a word, money. (This excellent history and timeline gives more detail.) The New York Times:
None of this happened on its own. It was the result of a series of decisions by both Republican and Democratic politicians — governors from George E. Pataki to Mr. Cuomo and mayors from Rudolph W. Giuliani to Bill de Blasio. Each of them cut the subway’s budget or co-opted it for their own priorities.
They stripped a combined $1.5 billion from the M.T.A. by repeatedly diverting tax revenues earmarked for the subways and also by demanding large payments for financial advice, I.T. help and other services that transit leaders say the authority could have done without.
They pressured the M.T.A. to spend billions of dollars on opulent station makeovers and other projects that did nothing to boost service or reliability, while leaving the actual movement of trains to rely on a 1930s-era signal system with fraying, cloth-covered cables.
They saddled the M.T.A. with debt and engineered a deal with creditors that brought in quick cash but locked the authority into paying $5 billion in interest that it otherwise never would have had to pay.
In one particularly egregious example, Mr. Cuomo’s administration forced the M.T.A. to send $5 million to bail out three state-run ski resorts [in upstate New York; hi Bob!] that were struggling after a warm winter.
At the same time, public officials who have taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions from M.T.A. unions and contractors have pressured the authority into signing agreements with labor groups and construction companies that obligated the authority to pay far more than it had planned.
Faced with funding shortfalls, the M.T.A. has resorted to borrowing. Nearly 17 percent of its budget now goes to pay down debt — roughly triple what it paid in 1997.
In a sentence, a corrupt political class and the bankers looted the system.
Before concluding, let me throw Uber into the punchbowl. From the New York Times, “Subway Ridership Dropped Again in New York as Passengers Flee to Uber“:
In another alarming sign of the crisis plaguing New York City’s subway, ridership dropped for the second year in a row as passengers flee the system for Uber and other ride-hailing services, draining the transit system of badly needed revenue. Annual subway ridership fell in 2017 to about 1.73 billion trips, down about 2 percent from 2015, according to statistics from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and subway officials said ridership continues to slip, falling during the first five months of this year by about 2 percent. the declining subway ridership could have wide-ranging consequences: It could hurt the transit agency’s finances, increase street congestion and stall the city’s economic success as it competes against global cities with better transportation networks.
Just spitballing here, but if you use the neoliberal playbook framework —  Defund [or sabotage],  claim crisis,  call for privatization…  Profit!” (rinse, repeat as necessary) — it seems to fit the case of the New York Subway pretty well; we’ve seen defunding, we’ve seen the cries, which are reality-based, of crisis, and now we’re seeing the entry of a private firm to scoop up profit (except Uber isn’t, and cannot become, profitable; however, its squillionaire backers may (a) be stupid money, and (b) may believe that destroying public services is a good thing in itself). However, given the long time frames and multiple players involved — the Subway wasn’t defunded forty years ago because Travis Kalanick had sent a messenger from the future — a more sophisticated trope than “playbook” is required. So that is my confession of bafflement!
One thing I’m not baffled about is that we need to defend government’s ability to deliver public goods vociferously and unrelentingly. The Atlantic:
Ensuring the long-term survival of the subway system will require a radical shift in American values, said [Projjal Dutta, the MTA’s director of sustainability initiatives]. Its . “Public transportation reduces carbon dioxide,” he said. “Carbon dioxide causes global warming, global warming brings water into the public transportation system, and the result is the reduction of public transportation. It’s a vicious circle and it’s not well understood.” Two-thirds of New York state’s residents live in the MTA service area, he said, but there is a national narrative about highways and cars and roads that is much more powerful. Right now, federal transportation dollars are split 80/20 in favor of roads and highways. “If you want to solve the problem of climate change, we have to start reversing that split.”
Moscow seems to be outdoing us, here. Better subway, better work preventing global warming. Should that be?
 This contrast is also visible in the Third World hellhole that is the JFK International Terminal. Why, New York? Why?
 The capital investment plan is already controversial with regard to signaling.
 To be fair, we used to make things that lasted forty years.
 Here is a wonderful article from the Atlantic about the Subway’s interlocking system, the labor that goes into maintaining it, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s first encouter with a large software project.
 Or they’re the sort of funny squillionaire who believes that the Jackpot makes die-off inevitable, so why invest in any infrastructure beyond gated communities in New Zealand, or rockets to Mars?