Commuters ride the A train in Brooklyn near the end of peak hours.

Photo by: Marc Fader

Commuters ride the A train in Brooklyn near the end of peak hours.

The temperature on the subway platform was 94 degrees. The station was 14th Street, on the 1 line, and it was a Saturday, just a little after 3:30 in the afternoon. The last downtown train had pulled away at 3:20, and riders waiting for the next one were beginning to get antsy. People paced or leaned over to peer down the tunnel. Seconds ticked by; sweat dripped.

A shout echoed from the middle of the platform: “Where is the train?!”

It was Candice Sanchez, 26, of the South Bronx. She and her half-brother David Lugo were on an odyssey on this sweltering weekend afternoon to a public pool in Greenwich Village.

Under the MTA’s sweeping service cuts, instituted July 27 to offset a nearly $800 million budget shortfall, many trains will arrive less frequently. That much, everyone who’s read a tabloid newspaper in the past month knows.

But what has received less attention is that the trains will not just be fewer and farther between, but also more crowded. The days when the MTA tried to guarantee every passenger a seat on off-peak trains are gone. That guarantee was always more of an ideal than a reality. Still, its passing and the arrival of more crowded trains, all day and all week long, stand to alter the way New Yorkers think about their commute and the quality of life they enjoy underground.

Fewer trains with bigger loads

The reduced number of trains and increased amount of crowding are, obviously, flip sides of the same coin. Under one change being implemented by the MTA, the scheduled time between weekend trains has increased: Where the scheduled wait between trains used to be 6 minutes, now it is 8. Where it used to be 8, now it is 10.

In its summary of the recent changes, the MTA notes that even before the cuts, weekend trains were often late because of construction. This adjustment formalizes that lateness: Instead of a delay, it is the new normal. In fact, a wait of up to 15 minutes between weekend daytime trains could now fall within the MTA’s guidelines of acceptability, because the authority does not officially categorize a train as late until it is five minutes behind schedule.

The greater wait times translate to many subway lines having fewer and more crowded trains during times when New Yorkers have become accustomed to having a little more elbow room. Trains on the 1, F, N and Q lines will now have 10 to 18 people, or more, standing in every car during busy hours on weekends. Weekday trains are more crowded too: On the 1, 7, A, F, L, J and M lines, off-peak trains are now being scheduled so that, again, there can be between 10 and 18 people standing per car.

Before the changes, the MTA would have considered that many standees unacceptable on an off-peak train. Subway trains are scheduled in part according to “loading guidelines,” internal rules about how full each car should be. On most lines, the guidelines have long aimed at an ideal by which off-peak trains carry 100 percent of a seated load—a passenger in every seat, in other words, and a seat for every passenger. Under the new guidelines, which aim for 125 percent of a seated load, even off-peak trains won’t have seats for everyone.

In relative terms, against the backdrop of the MTA’s funding shortfall, some passengers may not consider this a major hardship. Indeed, New York City Transit spokesman Charles Seaton noted, the guidelines already allow for far more crowded trains during peak hours: between 250 and 290 percent of a seated load, or between 66 and 105 people standing in every car. In practice, the rush-hour crowding on some lines, particularly those along Lexington Avenue, can exceed even that. Considering that the subway cars in use throughout the system are capable of holding between 120 and 230 standing passengers, depending on the model of car, a train with 18 standing passengers per car may not feel truly crowded to many people.

The new rush hour
Still, passenger advocates argue that the less frequent trains, and greater tolerance for crowding, represent a change for the worse in most riders’ day-to-day experience on the subway—and a bad omen for transit service, considering that the MTA still has a $400 million budget gap to make up.

Gene Russianoff, spokesman for the NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign and a longtime transportation advocate, argues that the difference from the new guidelines is significant for passenger morale.

“Knowing that I have a much greater chance of standing for my entire trip, it’s a total bummer,” Russianoff says. Of the minute-to-minute delays now built into the schedule, he added, “That’s time added to your trip when you’re not spending time with your kids, or cooking dinner, or shopping. It adds up.”

Moreover, Bill Henderson, executive director of the New York City Transit Riders’ Council and the MTA’s citizens advisory committee, says the decreased train frequency associated with the loading changes reduces much-needed margin for error.
If a train has to be taken out of service, for example, the next train has to carry twice as many people. If an express train breaks down, or a sick passenger delays service on a line, other trains become more crowded. When trains are relatively empty, Henderson said, such disruptions can be absorbed. But after the changes, he says, “Because the standard is people standing, then if something goes wrong, you really have a packed situation.”

The MTA’s cuts to off-peak service come at a time when train usage is less concentrated on rush hour than it used to be. Off-peak ridership has increased drastically, Henderson says, in part because people are working less traditional hours, and in part because today’s subway system is used more often, by more people, for more than just getting to work.

More people, more problems

More crowding on subways could affect more than just personal comfort, although the effects can be complex.
Robert McCrie, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who specializes in security issues in public areas, says pickpockets who operate on subways can have a greater advantage on crowded trains. On the other hand, he says, empty train cars, particularly late at night, can also be dangerous.

Ed Galea, a professor at the University of Greenwich who is an expert in fire safety and evacuations, says in an email that in an emergency, increased crowding in subway cars decreases the system’s safety margin – the difference between the time needed to get everyone off a train and the time that is actually available. Whether that narrowed margin means the system is unsafe is another question, Galea says, but certain types of evacuations are more difficult when there are more riders. While an evacuation in a station, onto a platform, can flow relatively quickly, Galea says, an emergency that requires moving passengers from car to car, or from cars onto the track bed, could be more dangerous.

Safety issues aside, Galea adds, more-crowded trains take longer to load and unload at each station, introducing the potential for delays. Overcrowding, in fact, is one of the leading causes of delays in the subway system; in April, the last month for which data was available, it ranked fourth, behind several construction-related factors that caused the vast majority of delays. Still, that month alone, according to MTA board meeting materials, 1,555 trains were delayed because of crowding.

“That’s people taking a long time to get off, people not being able to get on, maybe holding doors in the hopes that they can get on,” Henderson says. While holding doors is officially frowned-upon, he added, it makes more sense to passengers who are pressed for time and under stress, and who know that the next train might not arrive for 6, 8, 12 minutes or more.

“In many cases, these are people that have to be where they have to be,” he said. “Sometimes these are people that have to pick up their kid at day care, and they have to get on this train. It’s not behavior I want to encourage by any means, but it’s behavior you get from people who are put in a bad situation. Crowding leads to delays. It just does.”

Counting the crowds

Just how much crowding is present from month to month, and how much it will or won’t increase under the new guidelines, is hard to determine. Seaton, the transit spokesman, says the MTA performs periodic load checks to see whether guidelines are being exceeded, and adjusts service frequency accordingly. The public, though, may not get to see the results for itself: A report released in September by the city comptroller’s office noted that no information on crowding is included in the MTA’s monthly committee reports, and called the agency’s methods for assessing crowding unclear.

On the 1 train platform, on the sultry Saturday afternoon, Candice Sanchez and David Lugo had performed an informal assessment of their own, and the results were not good. Their wait had now climbed past 20 minutes, and Sanchez was listing all the recent service cuts she could think of, as well as the fare hikes and the proposal to lay off station agents. Somebody pointed to a sign, recently installed, that will someday tell riders when the next train is due to arrive. It was not working yet.

“It’s annoying when it’s real hot and you gotta wait for the train,” Lugo said. “It’s like we paid for nothing.”

“See,” Sanchez said. “You can have a whole conversation and the train don’t come.”

It finally did come at 3:46, 26 minutes after the last train left. A wall of people stood inside the car.

“You see what I’m saying? It sucks,” Lugo said. “Now we’ve got body to body, like 10 other people we gotta touch. And people be smellin’ in there, too.”

This is the first article in a three-part series on the implications of recent MTA service cuts. Part II details the impact of bus cuts on some New Yorkers . Part III explores the deeper causes and long-term implications of the MTA’s funding crisis.

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