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Posts from the "Subways" Category

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Are the Subways Getting Worse? Depends on How You Measure It

Yesterday the Straphangers Campaign released a report that shows the number of subway incidents that result in a significant delay in 2013 rose 35 percent from 2011. ”The increase in alerts is a troubling sign that subway service is deteriorating,” said Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign.

The MTA responded that despite the report’s findings, the reliability of service has remained steady over recent years. “Since 2011, the amount of time customers have had to wait for a train throughout the system has remained flat,” the authority said in a statement.

Why the discrepancy, and who is right? They both are, but they each used a different metric to reach their conclusions.

The Straphangers report used a novel metric to come to its conclusions: It tracked the number of alerts the MTA sent out via text message and email warning customers of delays.

According to the MTA, “Email alerts are issued for any incidents reported… that will result in a significant service impact expected to last 8 to 10 minutes or more.”

The Straphangers Campaign documented each actual incident of delay over eight minutes that was caused by events such as signal or mechanical problems. The report distinguished between “uncontrollable” delays, those involving a sick passenger or police activity, and “controllable” delays.

The MTA, on the other hand, uses “wait assessments” to track the level of service. Wait assessments measure headways, or the time between trains, and track whether the next train arrives within a certain time period after the previous train departed — in this case the delay cannot be more than 25 percent longer than the scheduled headway. In other words, a train with an expected headway of eight minutes is considered on time if it arrives within ten minutes.

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Costs of Subway Slowdown Would Add Up Fast

Following the recent deaths of two subway passengers who were pushed onto tracks, TWU Local 100 is urging operators to slash train speeds as they enter stations, the New York Times reported yesterday. A TWU flier, which you can view here, advises operators that “Preventing a [run-over], and saving yourself the emotional trauma and potential loss of income that go with it, is worth a few extra minutes on your trip.”

There’s no question that watching death unfold through the train windshield and being powerless to avert it can result in trauma and guilt. But the proposed remedy in the TWU flier could be surprisingly costly. Based on calculations from my Balanced Transportation Analyzer spreadsheet model [PDF], if those “extra few minutes” were actually applied as a preventive measure to every subway trip, the lost time could aggregate to millions of hours per year for straphangers, not to mention more street and highway gridlock as the slowdown leads some commuters to drive instead of taking the train.

The city’s subways account for 1.6-1.7 billion passenger-trips a year. Here’s a rough sketch of the leading consequences from slowing all of them by an average of five percent:

  • A 2.4 percent drop in subway ridership, as slower service discourages “marginal” train trips
  • A nearly 4 percent rise in private auto trips into the Manhattan Central Business District, causing a 4 percent drop in average vehicle speeds there
  • 1 percent fewer people coming to the CBD — a net decrease of 34,000 each day
  • 55 million hours a year sacrificed to slower travel (35 million for transit users, 20 million for vehicle users), collectively costing them $1 billion a year, based on values of travel time
  • A $60 million a year revenue hit to NYC Transit, or a $35 million net loss for the MTA after factoring in higher throughput on tolled bridges and tunnels

These figures do not reflect higher personnel and equipment costs to run additional trains to make up for the slowdown. Nor do they capture macro-economic effects of reduced business from the decline in CBD activity. Even so, they’re not chicken-feed.

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MTA Partially Restores Transit Service and Adds Some New Bus Routes

Riders on the Q42 bus will have midday service restored under a package of service improvements released by the MTA today. Photo: Deishawn Ashley via Flickr

The MTA is starting to repair some of the damage done by 2010′s devastating round of service cuts. The transit agency has announced a new set of transit service improvements worth $29 million a year, making up roughly a third of what was cut in 2010. Riders will also get a two-month reprieve from next year’s planned fare hike, with the higher prices now set to kick in on March 1.

In New York City, the new spending is focused on the bus system, not the subway. The five-stop G train extension in Brooklyn will be made permanent, but that’s the only enhancement to the subway system. The W and V trains aren’t coming back, and the MTA is sticking to revised rules that tolerate more crowding and less service. Subway ridership, in stark contrast to bus ridership, has continued to reach record levels despite the service cuts.

In all five boroughs, service will be restored to some of the bus routes that were scaled back. Riders on 24 bus routes will benefit. One of the lines — the B39 — has been revived after being eliminated entirely in 2010. The other restorations will lengthen routes, add more frequent bus runs, or bring back off-peak service. The full list of improvements is available on the MTA’s website.

Though many of the 2010 bus cuts will remain, brand-new bus service is being added to fast-growing areas like the Williamsburg waterfront and Manhattan’s West Side, or to under-served areas like Hunts Point and Queensborough Community College in Bayside. It appears that the MTA has at least used the budget crisis to reallocate resources to where they are most needed in the bus network.

Commuter railroad riders will also see better service, especially on Metro-North, which will add 230 trains a week to its schedule, reports the New York Times. It’s the largest service expansion in the agency’s history. The new service will mostly run off-peak in response to the growing popularity of the railroad for non-commute trips.

The restoration of transit service is incomplete and the fiscal situation underlying these limited improvements remains extremely fragile. Lawmakers in Albany could continue to raid dedicated transit funds, or fail to make the MTA whole for after cutting the payroll mobility tax, or saddle riders with even more debt to pay off unless they fund the upcoming MTA capital plan. Advocates and riders will need to hold Governor Andrew Cuomo and the legislature accountable to make sure New York sees more transit restored, rather than another round of cuts.

Today, though, it’s worth enjoying the good news about transit when you can.

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Straphangers: Ancient Train Signals a Prime Culprit of Subway Delays

Signal failures cause more significant delays than anything else on the subway system. The MTA plans to prioritize signal upgrades in its next capital plan, if Albany provides the money. Photo: Librado Romero/New York Times

Has your subway been delayed recently? Blame New York City’s aging transit infrastructure, especially its outdated signal system. Then start fighting to make sure Albany fully funds the MTA’s next capital plan.

A new report from the Straphangers Campaign shows just how prevalent signals failures are on the subway system. In 2011, the MTA sent out 4,580 e-mail and text message alerts informing riders of significant delays on the subway system (in general, these are delays of ten minutes or more; see the whole methodology in this PDF). Straphangers deemed around 3,000 of those under the MTA’s control, letting the agency off the hook for things like police investigations or water main breaks. Over a third, 1,062, were related to signals.

It’s perhaps no surprise that signals, which tell train operators when to stop and when to go, are causing delays across the system. They’re ancient. As of two years ago, a quarter of the system’s signals were more than 70 years old, according to New York City Transit chief engineer Fredrick Smith.

The good news is that the MTA has identified upgrading the subway system’s signals as a top priority. “It’s about signals,” MTA chief Joe Lhota told City And State last month. “If we’re going to have more throughput, we’re going to put more trains on the same track, and we’re going to have to have more modernized signals.”

The bad news is that upgrading signals is expensive work — the MTA is spending over $3 billion on New York City Transit signals and communications work in its current capital program — and there’s no plan yet for how to fund the next capital plan. The debt-saddled authority can’t afford to borrow billions, like Governor Cuomo did for the current round of spending, and put the next five years of upgrades and repairs on a credit card.

Some revenue stream, whether Sam Schwartz’s toll plan, James Brennan’s transportation bond issue, or Lhota’s own suggestion of a sales tax, will be needed. Otherwise, those signals are just going to get worse and the delays more frequent.

This is the first year that Straphangers has collected this data, which is also broken down by line and borough, but in the future it will also allow riders to measure changes in the reliability of the subway system over time.

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New Tech Promises Less Subway Crowding, If Albany Doesn’t Beggar the MTA

Last week’s news that NYC Transit is planning to boost L train service isn’t just good for residents of Williamsburg. It points to a new era of faster and more reliable service throughout the subway system as the new signal technology known as Communications Based Train Control (CBTC) begins to take hold.

Communications-Based Train Control can relieve crowding throughout the subway system, Albany permitting. Photo: ianqui/Flickr

As the Times and Second Avenue Sagas reported, L train riders will start benefiting from more frequent service next summer, when the MTA adds trains on the weekends, which have seen an 84 percent jump in ridership since 2005. But the major advance in service, which promises to relieve crowding on some of the most jam-packed rush-hour trains in the system, will come at the end of 2012, when the new CBTC signaling system is slated to be completed.

Like most transit improvements here, the implementation will be slow and will come with some service disruptions. But the short-term pains will be well worth this major upgrade to NYCT’s antiquated signal technology. Whereas the century-old system now in use relies on block signals with colored lights alongside the track to tell operators if they’re too close to the train ahead, CBTC uses radio signals to locate all of the trains on the line. With this information, on-board computers can calculate the distance between trains precisely and in real time, letting operators run trains closer together without compromising safety.

With more trains per hour, wait times will diminish and trains should be less crowded — allowing for increased ridership as the experience of riding the subway becomes more convenient and pleasant. Adding just one train per hour adds space to move another 2,640 people. That translates to fewer times waiting while a packed train goes by, and fewer elbows in your ear when you board.

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Here They Are: The Best and Worst City Transit Scenes

Photo: Sabrina Porter

The Straphangers Campaign and Transportation Alternatives have chosen the winners for their best and worst of New York City Transit photo contest. The top “Good Transit Scene” was “Break of Day ” by Sabrina Porter, while John Wehmeyer took the prize for best “Bad Transit Scene” with “”Reassuring? Not so much!”

Photo: John Wehmeyer

Porter and Wehmeyer will each receive a 30-day MetroCard. Check out honorable mentions here.

“These photos show our transit system at its best — and its worst,” said TA Executive Director Paul Steely White. “It’s time we had more of the former and less of the latter. The winning photos shine a spotlight on the real-world consequences of transit funding cuts and remind us what we stand to lose if nothing is done.”

Not to diminish Wehmeyer’s victory, but White reminds us of another transit tableau that is sure to go down in history as one of the most repulsive of all time:

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Transit Photo Contest Down to Ten Finalists – Time to Vote

The transit photo contest held by the Straphangers Campaign and Transportation Alternatives has moved into the final round. Five finalists have been selected for the photo that most captures New York City’s transit system at its best, and five have been chosen to represent the system at its worst. You can vote for your favorite here.

The winning photographers will each receive a free monthly MetroCard, while the winning photographs will be used in an ad campaign making the case for better transit, so choose carefully.

Not to influence your vote or anything, but I voted for the two photographs above. In the “best of transit” category, I thought this shot of light streaming onto a subway was just beautifully composed, though the image of three boys showing off for the camera best represents my favorite moments on the train. In the “worst of,” I had to vote for the picture of sludge piled up at the Canal Street station; that station is right next to Streetsblog HQ, so that pick was personal. Let us know in comments which you voted for.

Be sure to check out the full photo galleries as well. Some of the best photos in each category didn’t make it into the final round at all, and they’re well worth a look.

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Submit Your Pics of the Best and Worst of NYC’s Transit System

This gorgeous photograph of the Beverley Road subway station in full bloom, brought to our attention by Brownstoner, somehow manages to make peeling paint look beautiful. Photo: flatbushnelson via Flickr

We often describe the importance of transit in numbers, like the fact that 54 percent of New York City households don’t even own a car. But even the most convincing stats can get a little dry. To help capture what the subways and buses mean to a city where the transit system is the closest thing to a shared experience for eight million people, the Straphangers Campaign and Transportation Alternatives are launching a photography contest. A picture is worth a thousand words, after all.

The contest will feature two categories: the things we love about transit — only-in-New York juxtapositions, for instance, or the system’s speed and ease — and the problems that make us fed up with the MTA. The winners will be featured in an ad campaign intended to make the case for better transit, said Straphangers Campaign Coordinator Cate Contino, while photos showing specific problems, like the mysterious dripping at certain subway stations or the shuttered bus stop a community once depended on, will be sent along to the MTA in the hopes of resolving the issues.

“We know that the MTA has been forced to make some really tough choices,” said Contino, explaining the goal of the ‘bad transit scene’ category. “We want to capture these declines that we’re seeing mostly anecdotally.”

The winners will each receive a 30-day unlimited MetroCard. To enter, submit your photos at straphangers.org by June 10.

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Without New MTA Funds, Transit Riders May Face Return of 70s-Era Disrepair

In 1974, the Franklin Avenue Shuttle derailed, a not infrequent occurrence as deferred maintenance took its toll on the transit system. Photo: Doug Grotjahn via nycsubway.org.

Last week we wrote about how the looming $10 billion deficit in the MTA’s capital plan could lead to a $3.00 fare and $137 monthly pass within three years. That’s not the only way the transit authority could decide to respond to a lack of funding, however.

At the other end of the spectrum from fare-backed borrowing, the MTA could decide that it cannot take on any additional debt. In that scenario, the MTA would simply have to cancel or postpone every unfunded maintenance and expansion project — most of the next three years of the capital program. You can see those projects at the MTA’s capital dashboard, here. The result will be breakdowns, delays, and a slide back toward the decrepit and dangerous subway system of the late 1970s.

“You can expect to see the condition of the system decline pretty rapidly if you’re not doing this work,” said Felice Farber, the director of external affairs for the General Contractors Association of New York. “It’s not too hard to get back to the poor quality service of the past,” she said.

“You’ll have older buses, so they’ll be breaking down more often,” explained Pete Foley of TWU Local 100. “Subways will have to go slower,” as they pass over worn out tracks, he continued. “Eventually you’re going to have cracks. You’ll have derailments if you have a crack in the rail.”

Delays will be more common during rush hour as well, due to the lack of regular preventive maintenance. “You’ll be fixing things when they break,” said Foley. “They’ll wait until it’s an emergency.”

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Fare Hike 2014: Without New MTA Revenue, $137 Monthly Pass Could Happen

If Albany doesn't do something about the $10 billion deficit in the MTA's capital program, MTA debt will pile even higher and transit riders will be forced to pay it off at the farebox. Image: NYS Comptroller

With each passing month, the MTA comes closer to the day of reckoning on its unfunded capital plan — the maintenance work that keeps trains and buses running and the expansion projects that provide more access to the system. While the first two years of the 2010-2014 capital budget were funded, there is a $10 billion deficit in the remaining three. So far, there doesn’t seem to be any plan from the city, state, or federal government to find this funding. In fact, between the State Senate’s goal of repealing the MTA payroll tax and the House GOP’s budget-slashing, there may be more obvious paths to the MTA losing revenue than gaining it.

Albany has twice passed up the chance to plug a major part of this gap by enacting bridge tolls or congestion pricing. Increasingly, it’s time to ask what happens to transit riders if legislators just don’t do anything. The options aren’t appealing: a $3.00 base fare or 1970s-style breakdowns and delays.

In one scenario, the MTA could decide that everything in the capital plan, from basic repairs to the system to megaprojects like the Second Avenue Subway, has to happen. In this case, they’d have to borrow the money to pay for the improvements up front. If the MTA borrowed all $10 billion, according to the state comptroller’s office [PDF], the MTA’s yearly debt service obligations would soar even higher than they are already projected to. In 2010, debt service cost the MTA $1.9 billion. If the capital plan is paid for by borrowing, by 2019 debt service would total $3.9 billion.

To pay for all that extra debt, the MTA would have to increase its yearly revenues the only way it can, by raising fares and tolls. According to Neysa Pranger of the Regional Plan Association, the MTA would need between $1 billion and $1.5 billion in new annual revenues to pay for $10 billion in bonds.

The 7.5 percent fare hike scheduled for 2013 — that’s on top of this year’s equivalently sized hike — is predicted to raise around $460 million a year, according to the comptroller’s report. Based on that number, it will take roughly a 24 percent fare hike to get $1 billion in new revenue and a 32.25 percent hike to reach $1.5 billion.

For riders, that’s a steep price to pay. If the fare hike is distributed evenly across different types of fares (for the latest hike, the base fare was held constant while the price of a monthly pass soared), that means a base fare between $2.80 and $3.00 and a monthly pass between $129 and $137.50 by 2014. If you think that people get mad about typical fare hikes, just wait.

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