One recent weekday, straphangers on their morning commute from Coney Island and Bensonhurst said they were resigned to a slow and occasionally unreliable ride on the D train. Several riders said they waited 20-30 minutes for the train during rush hour.
"Why have a schedule if it's not gonna work?" said Shakimer Avery, who commutes from Coney Island to her job at a global health nonprofit in Midtown. Avery said he tries to take the N train because it's a faster commute. The D stretches her trip to 90 minutes and has frequent service changes.
But elsewhere in the sprawling subway system, some commuters had praise for the state of the trains today—especially the feeling of relative safety. One rider on the Q train, Mark Burzynski, 42, said he was on the platform two weeks ago when a man started acting belligerent and harassing fellow riders, just days after a highly publicized pushing incident had everyone on edge.
"He picked out this one guy in the crowd," said Burzynski. "The crazy guy made a move, and it turned out that the guy he chose to pick on, out of all the people there, was a police officer, undercover." Two more officers appeared and subdued the man, Burzynski said.
Last week, City Limits sent 10 reporters on a series of mid-winter, mid-week subways rides on different lines – most but not all during rush hour. We found that New York's straphangers still have plenty of gripes, but many passengers begrudgingly acknowledge how much they depend on the subway system. Call it a love-hate relationship. And people who have been riding the subway the longest are the most likely to talk about how much it has improved.
Perhaps the most important improvement, many riders said, is safety. Increased police presence means fewer thefts and fewer subway fatalities. Despite recent high-profile incidents, the rate of subway deaths has remained steady over the past decade even as ridership has increased.
William Ludolph, a municipal bond underwriter who has been riding the 2/3 train since the early 1970s, recalled an incident during one mid-1980s ride. A passenger wearing a mink hat sat next to an open window—train windows opened back then. As the train pulled out of 42nd Street, a man on the platform reached in through the window and snatched the hat.
The MTA has in the past few months increased police presence in the subway, with a corresponding drop in violent incidents.
When riders did complain, they're comments emphasized timeliness.
"You never know when it might come, so you just have to ignore your watch," said Eugene Dor, who take the B daily from Sheepshead Bay to Kings Highway. He said his commute can take anywhere from 45 minutes to more than an hour.
Slow service during off-peak hours was another common complaint. Mark Gardner, an investment banker who leaves his Battery Park City job at 9 p.m., said he sometimes waits half an hour for the J train to take him home. Angel Gutierrez, a Bensonhurst construction worker, takes the D to jobs in the Bronx or Queens — a trip of at least an hour.
"On the weekends the trains take a long time. It's a problem for those of us who work weekends," he said.
Their second living room
Dac Peterson said she doesn't keep track of her train's performance. "Honestly, I don't pay attention," she said. "The more anxious you are the longer it takes."
It takes her 45 minutes to commute from Bensonhurst to her Midtown job, often uses the block of time to read or send text messages, but was reading a statistics textbook on the train this morning.
On the train or on the platform, riders were acutely aware that they spend a lot of time in transit, but nobody seemed eager to add it up: A half-hour commute each way translates to more than 200 hours a year and thousand of hours over a working life. But many riders were happy to talk about how they occupy themselves during all that transit time.
"I definitely read books more than I look at my phone," said Brandi Kutuchief, who commutes from Bushwick to East New York on the J. "It's really the only time I get a chance to do that."
Alison Sheehan, who rides the A train between Midtown and Washington Heights and Harlem several times a day, said her reading often makes her miss her stop.
Many Brooklyn riders said they use the time while the train is above ground to text or make phone calls.
Sharing ideas, but not smiles
One thing, however, has not changed: most people don't socialize with fellow straphangers. They put on their subway faces and keep to themselves. "When I get on the train I read, put mascara on, listen to my iPod; anything to keep me from having to look at other people on the train," said one rider.
Even riders who said they were mostly satisfied with their commute offered ideas for improvement.
"Faster is always better," said Jeff Roitero, who commutes 45 minutes from Borough Park to his Financial District job.
"The N train is better at giving information," said Rafinaz Bhuiya, who takes the D from Bensonhurst to her job in downtown Brooklyn. On the D, she said, "They don't announce all the stops. It would be hard for someone new."
Kate Ivanova commutes just 20 minutes from Coney Island to her job in Borough Park, but she too had a proposal for MTA leadership.
"I suggest whoever is the head take a ride every day during rush hour. Let them feel it," she said. "Then they'll know exactly what to fix."