Above was the scene this morning at the Perry Avenue entrance to the 205th Street-Norwood terminus of the D train. Two turnstiles were not accepting MetroCards at all. The remaining one didn’t seem to recognize any unlimited ride cards. You swiped, it told you to swipe again. And again. And again. Then it was more specific: “Swipe again at this turnstile.” No dice. If you wanted to buy a pay-as-you-go card, you faced uncertain prospects: One of the three MetroCard machines in the station long ago lost the ability to detect the touch of a human finger, another often accepts no cash and the card readers on the two “working” machines are totally unreliable. So a few desperate people hopped the turnstile, but if you played by the rules and walked two blocks to the other entrance at 206th and Bainbridge Avenue, you would swipe your card only to learn it had, somehow, been “just used.”
Just 14 hours earlier, the crowd at the uptown B/D platform at 161st Street-Yankee Stadium was five deep as at least 30 minutes passed with no train, and no announcement; the MTA website indicated “Good Service.” People who gave up and schlepped up four levels to the 4 train learned that a full-service train going all the way to the end of the line was 10 minutes off. It ended up being 15 minutes away.
These are just one commuter’s anecdotes from the last 24 hours–a very limited perspective on a massive, complex, important system. But in the slice of the transit system on which this reporter has spent, cumulatively, at least eight months of his life since returning to the city in 2002, tales of woe like these are less extraordinary than they once were. It used to be that a real subway horror story was good water-cooler material. Now it’s as ho-hum as the water itself.
Cool things are happening to transportation in New York. The Second Avenue subway will open on New Year’s Day, the first expansion of the underground in decades. A streetcar has been proposed to net together underserved neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens. A new ferry network is in the offing, offering a chance to connect more New Yorkers with the water on a most practical level. LaGuardia Airport is getting a long-overdue upgrade. There’s a push to expand CitiBike to serve more of the city.
As thrilling as all these developments are, none are likely to improve the life of subway commuters, except for those who take the 4, 5 and 6 trains and will experience some relief thanks to the new Second Avenue line. On the D train, it is possible that I will be unable to read about the opening day of the SAS because my car will be too crowded for anyone to unfold a newspaper.
The surveys New York City Transit presents online generally show broad satisfaction with its services. This might reflect the fact that New Yorkers appreciate just how impossible life would be without the subway or bus. It is the lifeblood of the city and, hey, you’ve got to give your lifeblood some props.
But other numbers indicate that there are increasing problems. In year-to-date data captured in September 2016, NYC Transit reported that the average time between failures on the subway had decreased by a massive 24 percent, on-time performance had slipped from 75 percent to 68 percent, elevators and escalators were slightly less reliable, and subway ridership had dropped off.
Those same numbers indicated improvement in bus service. But in a report this summer, the Straphangers’ Campaign indicated that there are bigger problems with buses than those stats reflect:
… [T]oday, buses in New York City are slow, unreliable, and unfortunately getting worse. In some ways, bus travel hasn’t changed much in decades: bus routes often follow old streetcar lines that haven’t been re-examined for years, riders still line up one by one at the front of the bus to board, and introduction of digital-age technology has not led to a revolution in bus efficiency or reliability. At the same time, buses are facing new challenges: increasing traffic congestion and construction-related disruptions are contributing to declining average travel speeds across the city. Buses, which could be a key way to meet transit needs not met by our subway network, are stuck in traffic instead.
It’s too obvious to state that the transit system is crucial to the city—and individual riders—achieving economic potential. It’s a social justice issue, too. Many New Yorkers have no choice but to ride the subway and buses. They can’t work from home. They can’t take a cab. They don’t own a bike or don’t feel safe riding one. Being packed onto a subway car, stuck between stations, wondering if you will get to your son’s school for pickup before the staff there gives up and brings him to the local precinct, is dehumanizing. Fights break out. People feel defeated.
New York City is about to experience a municipal election year, and we’re at the point in the pre-game to that race where we ask what the campaign will be about. There’s no shortage of issues to discuss, with homelessness and the Trump effect chief among them. The transit system ought to be up there, too. Not like it was in 2009, when Mayor Bloomberg issued a plan to fix the MTA that went nowhere, in part because that plan was decoupled from the push for congestion pricing that might have funded it. This time, for real.
It’s up to candidates and officials to decide whether the MoveNY plan (discussed in this BkLive video) or some other approach is a viable starting point for achieving a good commute. What’s clear is that the entrance at Perry Avenue increasingly is not.