The Fragility of the New York City Subway System

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

I was going to post on data in our health care system, with particular attention to CDC, HHS, and hospitals, but when push came to shove, I just couldn’t do it. I was going to start by transcribing part of episode “3.2-The Broken Regime” from Mike Duncan’s Revolutions, on legal jurisdiction in the ancien regime, as a metaphor for the scale and scope of the problem, but I hate making transcripts, so here we are. Maybe next time. Anyhow, I love trains:

I have always found the New York City Subway (NYCS) exciting (although if making a connection depends on knowing which trains run on which tracks, stress replaces excitement). From a prosaic station on the street, one descends down grimy steel and concrete steps into a heated, noisy, crowded realm of criss-cross shadows and round bright lights, of complex signage, of wonderful maps, of ceramic mosaics, incomprehensible announcements, of cars that are an odd mixture of worn metalwork and digital technology, all in the midst of New Yorkers who are rushing, busking, standing and watching, waiting patiently or crankily, or reading. (I have always found New Yorkers very helpful to a bewildered out-of-towner: One, who looked like a lawyer, actually helped me carry my suitcases downstairs. The stairs of the New York Subway aren’t as bad as the Paris Métro, but they are bad, and the elevator system is hellishly conceived and obscure, perhaps fortunately.)

All of which goes to show that the New York Subway is a great civilizational achievement. From the Library of Congress:

The New York City Subway is an exemplar of public transportation in the United States, and even in the world. It is one of the world’s oldest public transit systems, one of the world’s longest subway systems, the largest rapid transit system in the world by number of stations, and furthermore, one of the world’s most-used metro systems. Thousands of tourists and locals ride the trains every day of the year, at every hour of the day. Now an iconic staple of New York City, many New Yorkers cannot even imagine their lives without the subway system.

Let’s hope they never have to. However, I saw this story come over the wires just now, and it gave me pause:

A “sequence of failures” in New York City’s subway system following a brief power outage disrupted half of the system for several hours and stranded hundreds of passengers…

Gov. Kathy Hochul said Monday.Hochul said in her later news release that she has directed the MTA to retain two independent engineering firms “to assist in a thorough deep dive of what happened and make recommendations to ensure this does not occur again.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a virtual news briefing that city agencies were working with the state and the MTA to investigate the disruption. “We’ve got to figure out why this happened and make sure it does not happen again,” de Blasio said.

But will “it” happen again? I would urge yes, given that the NYCS is fragile. From Nassim Nicholas Taleb in Anti-fragile:

You are in the post office about to send a gift, a package full of champagne glasses, to a cousin in Central Siberia. As the package can be damaged during transportation, you would stamp “fragile,” “breakable,” or “handle with care” on it (in red). Now what is the exact opposite of such situation, the exact opposite of “fragile”? Almost all people answer that the opposite of “fragile” is “robust,” “resilient,” “solid,” or something of the sort. But the resilient, robust (and company) are items that neither break nor improve, so you would not need to write anything on them—have you ever seen a package with “robust” in thick green letters stamped on it? Logically, the exact opposite of a “fragile” parcel would be a package on which one has written “please mishandle” or “please handle carelessly.” Its contents would not just be unbreakable, but would benefit from shocks and a wide array of trauma. The fragile is the package that would be at best unharmed, the robust would be at best and at worst unharmed. And the opposite of fragile is therefore what is at worst unharmed.

Clearly the NYCS is not anti-fragile; it does not grow stronger through trauma[1]. Nor is it robust, as we see. The NYCS is fragile, which Taleb also defines:

For the fragile, shocks bring higher harm as their intensity increases (up to a certain level).

When Hochul says

“The MTA [Metropolitan Transit Authority[2]] is the lifeblood of this city… Thank God it was a time of low ridership, it was on a weekend night. I can’t imagine if this happened during a morning commute”

… she is saying the NYCS is fragile.

Given that the NYCS is fragile, we might also say that it is not Jackpot-ready. So it’s with some confidence that I’m laying in the footings for future posting with this one. Since the NYCS is huge and complicated, there’s no way I can be exhaustive about any of these topics. Not only that, the NYCS is extremely dynamic and highly politicized — he whinged — so it’s hard to get the material under control. I hope readers — especially New Yorkers — will expand on or correct the points that I am able to make, which are essentially driven by “pain points” in the press, and fascinating nuggets thrown up as I did my reading. I will glance at four NYCS systems: Track, Electrical, Tunnel, and Social Relations.

The Track

Let’s start with the tracks. I did not find any material on track problems, other the crews have a hard time maintaining track in a subway. I did find this amazing factoid:

The city create[d] not only a mammoth network of 665 miles of track and 472 stations — still the largest number of stations of any system in the world — but also a system that would operate 24 hours a day, every day.

But here’s the catch: Because New York City’s subway was built for 24/7 service, the train yards are too small to store every car all at once. The trains literally can’t stop, even during pandemic times, to make space. “There isn’t an ability to turn off the system,” said Ben Kabak, the author of Second Avenue Sagas, a widely read New York City blog. “So the trains that are running are still running.”

Indeed, since May, the city that never sleeps has really been in a sort of fever dream. You can still hear the screeches of the ghost trains at night, empty except for MTA workers, police officers, and other authorized parties.

Running trains nonstop is hard: It makes repairs or upgrades (such as signal improvements, which they desperately need) more time-consuming and costly, especially when lines share the same track.

So the NYCS is like a shark: It has to keep swimming! And the need for continuous operation makes everything else harder.

Electrical Systems

Con Ed (Consolidated Edison Company of New York, an entity with its own problems) supplies power to the NYCS. An electrical system failure at Con Ed shut down the NYCS:

Hochul said Con Edison reported losing a feeder “for a short period of time” just before 8:30 p.m. Sunday “that resulted in a voltage dip across New York City.”

She said the outage was “momentary” and a backup system was activated. “But when they tried to go back to normal, there was a surge—an unprecedented surge—that resulted in the subway losing signalization and communication ability,” Hochul said. “The confluence of events that led to this has never happened before to our knowledge,” she said.

But the NYCS is an entity with problems of its own. It did not “go back to normal“:

A battery-powered backup system managed to keep it operational for about 45 minutes. Even though there are two emergency generators designed to automatically replace the battery power in cases of power outages, the generators failed to turn on—and the MTA’s alert system failed to send alerts that the back-up generators weren’t working, making subway managers think the subways were on generator power. The batteries then ran out at 9:14 p.m., causing the disruption.

Well, at least they didn’t crack the control rods. With no power whatever, the trains wouldn’t run, because their motors couldn’t turn. If signals (think “traffic lights”) have no power, running trains would be extremely dangerous, because two trains might try to occupy the same track at the same time. Interestingly — the NYCS is in fact dynamic — signalization has recently improved:

It’s the work of a team at the MTA that’s been fixing and replacing faulty signals that slow trains down.

The effort stems from a problem that former Transit President Andy Byford identified early in his tenure: why were the trains always running behind schedule?

After speaking with workers…

What a concept!

… he quickly learned that the century-old signals were damaged, causing trains to put on their emergency brakes, even if they weren’t speeding through a signal. This was causing conductors to drive extra slowly to avoid setting them off, resulting in both delayed trains and possible reprimands for tripping signals.The work Byford’s signal repair team began saw big payoffs just as he was leaving, with customer wait times dramatically reduced. In February 2020, just before the pandemic hit, the MTA reached a five-year record, with 84% of trains arriving on time overall, and riders taking 1.7 billion subway rides in 2019.

Despite concerns that Byford’s efforts would be halted when he departed, taking his “signals guru” with him, the work has continued.

(Byford had a falling out with New York’s quondam Governor, sex pest Andrew Cuomo, which I would file below under “Social Relations” if I wanted to go into it.)

From the tracks and the signals to the tunnels.


The main problem with NYCS tunnels is water. Specifically, flooding. As you read on Naked Capitalism last month:

Even on a dry day, the MTA says it pumps 14 million gallons of water out of subway stations.

But on Thursday, as a month’s worth of rain deluged the city inside of two hours, the vulnerability of the subway went on full display in videos of commuters wading waist-deep into pool-like stations…..

“If the rain is coming down at 100 gallons a minute and the pumps are 50 gallons a minute, you’ve lost the battle,” said Robert Paaswell, a distinguished professor of engineering at the City College of New York.

The sudden soaking of stations in Upper Manhattan and The Bronx, which typically do not experience heavy flooding, underscored the exposure of a nearly 117-year-old subway system not built for the extreme weather wrought by climate change.

The NYCS suffered terrible damage from Hurricane Sandy:

Millions of gallons of saltwater poured into the subway system, flooding nine of NYCT’s 14 tunnels. The saltwater’s corrosive effects damaged or ruined walls, tracks, switches, signals, controls, power and communication cables. In the storm’s immediate aftermath, NYCT crews scrambled to restore service. Remarkably, they got the system back up and running in three days. But they completed those tasks knowing full well that it would be several years before all reconstruction would restore the subway to pre-Sandy condition, says NYCT spokesman Kevin Ortiz….

“From the very beginning, we said this was going to be a process that would be years in the making,” says Ortiz of the Sandy recovery. “As we’ve moved forward, we’ve followed a parallel track of making repairs and, at the same time, hardening the system against future storms.”

Here is the current state of the system after Sandy:

But nearly nine years after the superstorm, dozens of other projects designed to strengthen the transit system against future catastrophic weather events remain unfinished — with the pandemic slowing some for months at a time, an examination by THE CITY found.

From erecting miles of protective walls around subway yards in Coney Island and Upper Manhattan, to finishing repairs along the Rockaway Line, to replacing a waterfront Staten Island Railway facility that flooded during the storm, the MTA’s nearly $8 billion federally funded Sandy repair program is a slow-moving work in progress, agency records show.

“We are not fully protected — Sandy was not a once-in-100-years storm and we could potentially get hit by another major storm at any time,” said Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA. “The more protected we are, the better.”

You never want to hear running water in the basement….

Social Relations

Where to begin. Since I don’t have a handle on the NYCS institutionally, I can’t say a lot about social relations as opposed to categories. The material I found falls under the following headings: Labor shortage, unions, hysteresis, contractors, and managerial dysfunction. (There is also the issue of a fare shortage, since ridership plunged when the pandemic began, but I’m skipping the topic of financing.)

Labor shortage. From Bloomberg: “A wave of pandemic retirements and a hiring freeze have left the system short on operators and conductors, the New York Times reported this week, leading to the cancellation of almost 5% of scheduled trains in June and long waits for passengers of some lower-frequency lines.”

The Unions. Many of these sources would, I think, say “the goddamned unions” in conversation. From City Journal, which certainly would: “Cuomo has passed up several opportunities for MTA reform. In 2011, both the Manhattan borough president and the head of MTA Capital Construction publicly acknowledged the agency’s high capital costs, but the state government in Albany never investigated the root causes of these high costs, even in comptroller’s reports on MTA finances. And though Cuomo claimed in last week’s debate that, thanks to his anti-waste efforts, certain unions “have been mad at me for seven years,” he has accommodated the MTA’s unions…. It’s hard to believe that transit unions are mad at Cuomo when, during his primary battle with Cynthia Nixon, the Transit Workers’ Union campaigned for him.” This leads me to–

Hysteresis is “the impact of past experience on subsequent performance.” I don’t see how City Journal, for example, can price labor in the NYCS, because the NYCS is so unique; it’s almost more like a holding in a library or a museum than anything else. It follows that the workers have tremendous knowledge of the material aspects of the system — see the anecdote on signals, above — and that’s simply worth writing a check for and working with, instead of against. Nobody’s doing to be outsourcing the NYCS to Uber’s precarious workers anytime soon.

Contracting. From New York Magazine: “People will say to me, ‘Why are MTA construction costs so high?’ And the answer is ‘Everything,’’: says Julia Vitullo-Martin, a senior fellow at the [Regional Plan Assocation (RPA)] and co-author of its 2018 report comparing New York’s construction costs to those in peer cities. ‘Every factor you look at is flawed the way the MTA does business, from the first step to the end.’… [I]n the case of the MTA, the root cause of its capital-construction failures is usually diagnosed as unaccountability: Nobody knows who’s in charge, so nobody has to be terrified of taking the blame for obscene costs and endless delays.” Leading us to–

Managerial dysfunction, as exemplified by Cuomo defenestrating Byford, who succeeded upward to Commissioner of Transport for London.


The climate-paranoid — or climate-rational — person could certainly combine several of these individual issues into an enormous cascade dwarfing Hurricane Sandy in effect. The fragility of the New York City Subway System is the fragility of New York City, so that would be unfortunate.


[1] It would seem, however, that capitalism is anti-fragile, an interesting result from the enormous natural experiment that is the Covid pandemic. If it is not, we have not reached the point where it is not.

[2] The MTA is responsible not only for the NYCS, but for buses, commuter rail, and some bridges and tunnels.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Carolinian

    I remember the screeching due to the cars not having swiveling trucks to easy them around curves.

    Boy do I remember it. When I was in Paris I found that their Metro had first and second class cars which struck me as very un-American.

    Of course such an arrangement is getting more American by the year although it would be pointless in NYC since the rich all have cars (or did). The middle class would settle for taxis (or did).

    With sea level rise on the way it may be time to bring back the El.

  2. Huey Long


    I’m completely and utterly shocked a Mainer such as yourself groks the predicament of the NYC subway so well and with such deference to us natives.

    Now, for some local color:

    The MTA itself was a Nelson Rockefeller creation to defenstrate Robert Moses and divert toll money from Moses’ prior empire building activities at the Triboro Bridge and Tunnel Authority to funding mass transit, namely a giant subway expansion (1968 plan for action) and taking over local commuter rail from private carriers.

    The governor controls the majority of the seats on the board, ergo the MTA is the governor’s problem. The thing is though, that the mayor seems to eat all the negative press about the subway and your average guy on the street thinks the mayor runs the subways.

    Crazy right?

    How about that 1968 plan for action?

    It was ambitious and well funded, I mean even the propaganda was well done!


    Nelson’s building spree (Empire State Plaza anybody?) coupled with numerous other factors saw funding evaporate and the system to become cash starved until the mid-80’s. Most of the 1968 plan for action was severely curtailed and/or delayed.

    The terminal station for the LIRR line in the tunnel propaganda film is *still* under construction…

  3. urblintz

    Epic, lambert. Thanks for your good work.
    I left Manhattan in 2011 already dismayed by the infrastructure decay throughout the island…saw some hopeful signs of improvement in subsequent visits but after Sandy things were looking very fragile indeed.

  4. Amfortas the hippie

    i briefly entertained a voyage to NYC when i was deep in the weeds with the Beats…especially Kerouac and Hunkle…since i was living in a van and all.
    but being a creature of woods and hills, and having experience with places like Houston and New Orleans, i decided it wasn’t for me.
    but i am enamored of Systems…i told our mayor a week ago that I do infrastructure , too…so i understand the challenges of plugging even 90’s tech into 1901 extant.
    but it was the word “Fragility” that drew me to this overview so close to my bedtime.
    it seems to me, based on things like this and so many things like it that i’ve observed over the years, that we really need to think about…seriously and soberly…just how utterly fragile so many of our systems are.
    the february ice age in texas…the milk truck failing to arrive last week…or, when Hurricane Rita came through east of Houston, where all the warehouses live…and us 350 miles away didn’t get gas, groceries or beer trucks for a week…and the one grocery store had nothing left but canned oysters and corn shucks(for tamales).
    Rita’s effects on my far place really made an impression on me.
    and when you dig in to how a given product gets into your hands, you invariably find that it’s not only traveled a great distance, but that it has numerous hands involved in it’s conception, production and delivery.
    in my own infrastructure and other doins, i’ve found that complexity is to be avoided…i like my hand cranked truck windows and the simplest switches available.
    this story of complexity, in the subway…surely a marvel of human achievement…is nevertheless far from sustainable…especially given the myriad black swans wafting overhead(which you were apparently thinking about too)
    i remember, after Sandy, reading about them getting the thing running again so quickly…but Doomer Me muttered at the time, “yeah, but they had parts and such from outside of the disaster”.
    i expect that one day, all of our hypercomplex systems, that we rely on for literally everything, will simply stop.
    and “Hysteresis” is a terrifying word in this context.

      1. Amfortas the hippie

        in the early 90’s when i was there it was not exactly what the brochures said,lol.
        for instance, the highest paying restaurant jobs at the time were in the Arboretum, out 281, where big tech had landed.
        but buses bring the riffraff, so they didn’t run out that way at any times that were close to when The Help needed them.
        so if you wanted to cook or wait and actually make money, you needed a car.
        similarly, on 6th street, the buses usually stopped running about 30 minutes before i could in any way close down the kitchen…while there was nowhere safe to park downtown…without getting towed, at least(only 2 ,8 hour meters within a mile of 6th street that i ever found.)
        i’m also a congenital country bumpkin and loathe big city life, so i’m likely at least somewhat biased in my assessment.
        I have no idea at all what public transportation in Austin is like, today…but traffic is akin to that of Mexico City …so i rarely go there any more.
        I tasted/sampled the San Antonio Bus system, almost 3 years ago, while wife was in the epic, scary phase of the cancer adventure…and found it much better than what i remember about Austin…at least in the broad area around the Medical Center…venturing as far as Culebra and even to downtown, once.
        the buses there were timely, not rattletraps, and even had wifi.
        the system was easier to understand, too…compared to Austin almost 30 years ago.

      2. darms

        In the 90’s my job was ~ 10 miles north of Cameron Road & 183, normally a 45 minute commute. Took the bus one day, 2+ hours, 3 transfers, and a scary point where I literally had to pull the cord & do an emergency stop. Going home that night Cap Metro directed me to a non-existent bus stop. Don’t remember, think I called someone for a ride home that night. Cap Metro in Austin TX was/is a disaster, likely designed that way on purpose…

    1. BillS

      As someone who works in developing fault tolerant electronic systems for aerospace, I agree that “simplicity” is an important component of reliability. The other, and perhaps more significant contributor to reliability is “redundancy”. Critical systems are typically based on triple redundancy as a minimum. The idea is to limit the so-called “single points of failure” or bottlenecks. Unfortunately, redundancy is anathema to our rulers and economic decision makers, who base decisions on economic “efficiency”. Many engineers who work in critical systems constantly fight with bean counters who want to cut costs by reducing redundancy requirements. Boeing’s MCAS woes are a classic case of this. Fragility of hyper-efficient just-in-time supply lines is also a related problem.

  5. drumlin woodchuckles

    Here’s a book you might like about the ultimate fall of modern civilization due to unmanageably excess complexity turtles all the way down.

    I have sometimes found sites to this book which contain the whole book as pdf. Modern search obstruction engines make it very difficult to find those sites when you want to.

  6. BeliTsari

    I’m sure, everyone will love to hear that it was the numbered lines (with new, electronic signalling & control & the rebuilt L line that were toasted by the surge). The analog IND/BMT trains, and their ancient bakelite & glass insulated, fabric wrapped amusement park ride sparking & ozone spewing “Taking of Pelham 123” style 1923 fun-house dark-ride hardly noticed (Sort’a like the Rooski air force, ignoring solid state, due to EMP and spotting our stealth fighters on tube radar?) Cuomo could’ve had a 31st Century mass transit sustem to serve working folks in Brooklyn & the Bronx. OR a bunch of $3 & $5B stations and a few hundred yards of shiny new subways to schlep “essentials” to their UES 1099 gigs, for $4.5B? $6B more, once Harlem is gentrified, with 1,300′ luxury high-rises.

  7. The Rev Kev

    I’ll add a comment later but will for the moment drop a link to a fascinating video about how the New York Subway network started and expanded. It will probably mean more for New Yorkers to see. You can see constant expansion until about WW2 when there are lines that are pulled back and abandoned. Some minor additions to the line and an major new line or two but that is about it- (10:21 mins)

  8. VietnamVet

    A good read on an interesting topic.

    My last train day-trip to NYC to ride an Acela consist and get around on the subway was a week before 9/11. I did see the Twin Towers just before entering the Hudson Tunnels. A lot has changed since then, mostly for the worse, but at least the subway is in service. There is no alternative if it is privatized.

    1. The Rev Kev

      Trick question. Which would you trust most-

      -That 100 year-old subway equipment that is by definition non-hackable.

      -Modern electronic voting booths with occasional links to the internet.

      -Apple with your privacy on your mobile.

      1. Trainer

        My comment about Apple was a clumsy reference to their opposition to right to repair. And how anything reliably using 100 year old regularly repaired technology would probably drive them mad. I absolutely would not trust them with mobile phone privacy.

  9. PlutoniumKun

    The big question with something like the NY subway is whether there is a breaking point for the entire system.

    There are plenty of examples where it can make sense to freeride on very old technology on the basis that if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. NY has numerous apartment buildings with fully functional elevators that are a century or more old (I know, having briefly worked as an elevator boy as a student, uniform and all). Railway systems are a classic example – even if ‘inefficient’, it can be highly productive to essentially free ride on investments made by people long dead. This is one reason why the glossiness of new infrastructure in rapidly developing economies can be deceptive. All those brand new airports and subway systems put the older ones of ‘developed’ countries to shame, but as the loans are still live, they are nowhere near as productive in economic terms as they seem. The long paid for infrastructure systems of a London or Paris or Chicago can be a huge hidden subsidy to those cities relative to those of Shanghai or Abu Dhabi.

    But of course, its one thing to keep a working old system going, and gradually updating as appropriate (as they do very well in countries like Japan or France), and simply wringing out every last bit of use until it falls apart. It seems to me that the NY subway is in the latter throes of falling apart. Like an old truck, its final death may be long drawn out giving you time to save up for a new one, or it might happen all at once as the chassis collapses on you in the middle of nowhere. New Yorkers had better hope its the first one, but there are no guarantees.

    1. Adam1

      Well here in the good old USA we’re drunk on don’t fix it if it ain’t broke. Doing so would mean investing and well that’s code for spending money which causes too much pearl clutching to actually do. George Bush II said our military was for fighting not nation building. But I suspect our elites have given up on even nation building at home. It just costs too much. I mean, how can you asset strip excess profits if your spending money on investing?!??!?

  10. c9000

    I’ve lived in NJ or NY all my life; never had to rely on the NYC subway, however (all PATH, bus, or walking commutes). I too, appreciate the “system”, the idea of the subway, standard signage, the assumption that this must be a better way of doing things…

    But maybe we’re just better off with more buses? We came as close as ever to not having a subway system at all, overnights during the earlier months of the pandemic. Reasonably risk-adverse (maybe immune-compromised) commuters are driving more than ever. Ridership is down and there’s less fares to be collected (public transit should be free, but that is off-topic). Office workers are staying at home and many will never return to a 5-day week in the office; all of NYC, but Manhattan in particular, is likely to take on a much more residential character, with the pain points of the subway system more likely to be felt by service workers, rather than noisy white collar workers.

    I’ve been on the subway twice in the last year, but taken the 14th St SBS at least a dozen times, it is much more pleasant than the L to get across Manhattan! Is it that absurd to consider that maybe some subway service should be phased out, long-term? Buses and bus lanes are relatively anti-fragile (as long as bus lane enforcement and ticketing of cabs/uber/trucks offenders picks up steam). Billions of dollars for tunnel/track/signal maintenance could go a long way for red bus lane paint and SBS ticketing machines.

    Also, just my thought, probably getting off-topic, that we should be doubling down on the most accessible, resilient transit option, not stuff like subways and bike lanes… try taking the 1st Ave. SBS; the amount of passengers in wheelchairs going to the east side hospitals ought to convince everybody that we’re clearly underserving this part of the community… if anything, they need more service, and less articulated buses (more drivers equals more jobs / more assistance to passengers with special needs), not billion dollar elevator shafts for the L train.

    1. amused_in_sf

      There is no way buses could handle the volumes of the subway. It’s simply a matter of numbers. You can do your own comparison: count the number of people on the next bus you take and multiply it by the number of buses that run on that route in an hour. Do the same for a subway car, but multiply by 10 since there are usually ten cars on a train.

      When you factor in that subways run more frequently, and are faster (a short hop across the island is *not* a typical transit ride in NYC!), and carry more people, you quickly see why no large city in the world has thought buses could substitute for a train system.

      1. c9000

        We don’t have to guess, fortunately, the MTA has ridership numbers available: Day-by-day ridership numbers

        Based on those numbers, I’m going to say that bus ridership is 1/2 to 1/3 that of the subway. 2-4 times as many buses would be a big change, for sure, but it doesn’t seem that unreasonable over a long enough time frame?

        I mention Select Bus Service specifically because normal bus routes are traditionally so painful; too many stops, too much time with fare collection, and those problems are mostly solved with the SBS routes; the M14-SBS runs every 5 minutes (i think?), and Google Maps claims that the trip time of the M14-SBS is better/on parity with the L train if you’re at Ave A or further east.

        I’ll admit that I’ve never had a long intra-NYC commute, they have all been from NJ, and one of the advantages of those longer commutes is that almost everything is “express”, at least once they get closer to Manhattan; still, I really doubt that a “short” hop across the island on 14th St. is that atypical a transit ride, considering all the attention and fuss paid to the L train and 14th St. Busway over the past few years…

        1. amused_in_sf

          I’m not guessing, I’m encouraging you to do some math, since you seem skeptical of the experience of every major city on the planet and every transit expert. Buses are simply a low-throughput transit method; they work well only for a limited number of passengers and/or limited distances.

          System-wide numbers don’t really mean much, since they include areas that don’t have subway service. If you want to replace subway service with buses, you need to look at lines that run through the same places.

          According to Wikipedia, the L train had about 30m passengers a year in 2005. It is almost certainly a lot higher now as Williamsburg and Bushwick have seen an influx of younger, wealthier residents and a boom in residential construction. The M14 had 5m passengers in 2020. So we are looking at a 6x minimum increase in service, at least.

          In addition, we’d have to extend the M14 to Canarsie! That means slower travel times, more erratic frequencies, and slower travel times for most passengers. To say nothing of the changes to bridge traffic to guarantee a frequency of a few buses a minute.

          Buses are a lot more expensive than trains on a passenger-mile basis, so MTA operating costs are going to soar, as well.

          It’s probably easier to run a subway system in a reasonable manner!

          1. c9000

            OK, maybe let’s take a deep breath, all I said was “maybe some subway service should be phased out”. Yes, it is ridiculous to mothball the subway, just because. But also, the 2nd Ave Subway is more of a gift to the descendants of today’s landlords than something anyone alive today can look forward to. And I’m just sharing my experience, I would gladly take the M14-SBS over the L train for my crosstown needs.

            Most of those young wealthy tech types (my co-workers) that used to take the L into Manhattan every day, haven’t needed to, throughout the pandemic, and likely won’t be returning to full-time office work, ever. I share the author’s concerns about the overall fragility of the system, especially in regards to flooding; but also, in light of greatly reduced ridership + changes in transit patterns, it seems pretty reasonable to consider that major investment in subways at this time would be a significant drain on resources, compared to SBS expansion (yes, train operating costs per passenger-mile are cheaper, but the capital costs are significantly more).

            Why assume that decades from now, subway needs will be the same as they were before the pandemic, instead of just adding more dedicated busways and improving transit where it is needed now, in an uncertain time?

        2. drumlin woodchuckles

          Perhaps one of the Five Boroughs could volunteer to undertake the following experiment. Maintain a single point of subway contact with a point on the subway system from which anyone from the Experimental Borough can reach the subway system for the other 4 Boroughs. But for getting around within the Experimental Borough, cancel all subway presence. Make getting around everywhere within that Borough thoroughly dependent on buses ( and all the other ongoing individual modes of transport, of course).

          And see how it works out over a few years.

    2. PlutoniumKun

      Express bus routes are a very cost effective and quick solution to urban travel problems, especially if you have wide highways with sufficient room to create dedicated lanes.

      However, there is a limit to the capacity of even the best bus route. Its about equivelent to light rail depending on circumstances. Both have nowhere near the capacity of a heavy rail line. Typically, the capacity of a modern subway line is about 5 times the capacity possible with a dedicated bus or light rail line.

      1. Yves Smith

        NYC does not begin to have the road capacity, even before you get to Bloomberg and De Blasio initiatives to reduce the roads available to cars and busses by creating lots of bike lanes that go almost entirely unused even in good weather (not in abundance in NYC) and creating stupid plazas in what were formerly streets (see Times Square and Madison Green).

        1. c9000

          I work near Astor Place (well, before 2020, still remote but local)… there’s a bus rest/staging area, and it kept getting shrunk as they increased the size of the plaza… they needed more room for corporate events, such as promoting the reintroduction of Planters Cheez Balls… I’ll believe this when I see it.

          That being said, Ida’s remnants, yet another reminder of how fragile the subway is:

          Train service may be extremely limited tonight because of heavy rainfall and flooding across the region. We strongly recommend you avoid traveling at this time, if you can.

  11. amused_in_sf

    If you use Taleb’s definition, I don’t think the subway is at all fragile. It’s like a piece of metal with a fatigue limit: eventually, it will settle into some stable state of poor performance. For all the talk of the terrible state of the system in the 70s, trains still ran, and mostly in a tolerable way.

    But all the talk of fragility or resilience distracts from the simplicity of the main issue, which is that underinvestment and unaccountability will wreak havoc on any institution. Look at whom is held accountable (i.e. hardly anybody), and what money is (not) allocated to fix problems that are well understood and routinely solved all over the world (e.g. signaling, speedometers), and it’s not surprising the system is in the state it’s in.

    This is true of many American institutions, of course. The quiet acceptance of the slow decent into catastrophe is a fascinating phenomenon.

    1. redleg

      The signals and controls, on the other hand, are clearly fragile. The sturdiest rails are useless when/if nobody knows exactly where the trains are.

      1. amused_in_sf

        But they aren’t inherently fragile. Not testing your backup generators, or having a system to let you know if they have turned on, isn’t the fault of a physical system.

        If you didn’t secure the rails to the ties, they wouldn’t seem so sturdy…

    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      How is it that a governor of New York STATE is permitted to have any influence whatsoever on a transport system designed to serve in and around New York CITY? Is this capacity for State Governor interference and sabotage and dis-funding part of the problem right there?

  12. Michael Hudson

    Just for the record, a number of problems from my own recent experience here.
    Almost everyday at rush hour coming from Manhattan to Queens, the trains simply stop for a few minutes — maybe 15 or 20 minutes in a typical after 5-PM return.
    The last few times I took a subway there was NO enforcement of masks.
    And once the evictions begin for renters, the homeless will return to the subways.
    Also, my wife has repeatedly suffered anti-Asian attacks personally on the subway, from verbal attacks to spitting or coughing at her.
    But the real problem is the switching that was flooded in Sandy, and also remains way, way out of date.

    1. BeliTsari

      We’d started wearing eye protection, encountering packed cars last year. We’d Moderna, a year after a mild case, but I’d delayed a 2nd shot awaiting “targeted boosters.” So; as folks were apparently indoctrinated back onto trains, bars, elevators, offices, often maskless on conveyances. We’d reverted to >KF-94 indoors (or around mouthbreathing hive-minded imbeciles) and goggles, where uncomfortable: a judgement call, when living in a particularly stereotypical Irwin Allen 70s disaster movie for two years? We WALK!

    2. Etrigan

      The elevated station underpasses are already a refuge for the city’s unhoused, and the thought of both an increase of their numbers and time on transit makes me worried about the city’s already callous and cruel attitude towards the homeless worsening when hygiene is factored in (but not, as you point out, enforced, especially by an unmasked police). Between that and atrocious racist attacks like you’re describing if feels like we’ll lurch back to the early 20th century, but at least then these signaling systems were new and functional.

  13. Peter

    Bottom Line – Sandy was just the beginning and it will only get worse and there is no real way to “fit” this situation, it will be a slow painful death and will render NY city unlivable – so sad.

  14. Mike Furlan

    OT, But there is no such thing as “anti-fragile.” Like a Giffen good, you can imagine it, but you will never see such a thing in the real world.

    Yeah, you say, being long options is surely “anti-fragile”, but you must assume that your counter party, or clearing house that is on the other side of the trade is also “anti-fragile.” Good luck with that.

    1. Yves Smith

      False. Weight training. Strengthens muscles, bones, and increases grey matter in the areas that control motion and balance.

      Post mortems, regularly done in pro sports. Pro teams review tapes to spot and correct weaknesses in their performance and identify those of their opponents.

      1. Mike Furlan

        The thing in question is a bone.

        It is not anti-fragile, and breaks like a teacup, if you hit it hard enough.

        It does become stronger if you do weight training and less likely to break.

        If you did more maintenance and upgrades the NYC Subway system would be less likely to break.

        Does that make it anti-fragile too?

  15. Joe Well

    If you are at all interested in the NY Subway you have to read The Race Underground by Doug Most about the building of the Boston subway and then the New York subway ten years later (but still long before most of the world’s cities).There is also an American Experiences documentary.

    The Boston subway was pioneering but the New York Subway was a monumental engineering marvel of its time. In New York, they took everything learned from the Boston experience (especially the use of open trenches as opposed to bored tunnels) and made a fully mature system with things like dual tracks to allow for 24-hour service and expertly tunnels expertly linked to elevated tracks. The subway covered almost all of Manhattan in the first phase whereas in Boston the system was built piecemeal as demand was proven and revenue generated.

    It all sounds boring until you realize how much of this was technologically like a mission to Mars for the time. We could never do something like this today.

  16. Mike Furlan

    “Also, my wife has repeatedly suffered anti-Asian attacks personally on the subway, from verbal attacks to spitting or coughing at her.”

    This hatred, in my opinion, is far more dangerous and concerning than a lack of maintenance on infrastructure.

    1. BeliTsari

      I’m guessing we’d all agree; COVID simply disclosed NYC’s pandemics: bigotry, income disparity, sneering entitlement, specious obliviousness, echo-chamber brainwashing, piss-poor impulse control and amyglada triggered conditioned response? I’m guessing, Seinfeld WAS about something? US cities’ infrastructure is MOSTLY about race/ class issues. Robert Moses was simply in the self proclaimed media center (AGW = white flight suburban New Deal spending)

  17. Olivier

    @Lambert Why don’t you use a transcription service? There are many to choose from, at various price points. Then you only have to proof the result and correct any mistakes.

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