It’s a big thing now to moan about the city’s public transit system.
You hear it all the time especially from a loud subset of riders who use social media to beef about their snarled commute during morning rush on the F train. Or the guy in Astoria in a fit about his station being shuttered six months for renovation. Or especially where I live: the politically-spazzed new arrivals who whine about the 7 train, expecting an easy glide during a massive effort to modernize track signals.
The reality of the bus and train network in New York City is this: It’s by far the greatest public transit system in the US. It runs 24 hours a day. The fare is $2.75. It’s way better than any other form of getting around. It has been financially neglected for decades. A recent rash of service disruptions attributable to deferred maintenance and upkeep is now finally becoming the focus of attention by a more liberal state legislature which will likely approve a new, dedicated funding source in 2019 under the name “Congestion Pricing.”
Congestion Pricing is a marvelous, long overdue idea because it would serve a dual purpose. By imposing a hefty fee on vehicles entering Manhattan, it would reduce non-essential traffic into an already insanely crowded street grid. Money from the entry charge would go to modernization and more intensive upkeep of the city’s public transit system.
Our Governor and Mayor have both pointed fingers at each other for the real – and perceived deficiencies of the subway system’s current state. The Governor has control on the revenue side of this equation given his role as primary overseer of the MTA which funds and makes decisions about bus and subway service. And while it’s his city, Mayor de Blasio has little power to affect change. With a big boost from the summer’s well-informed and dynamic gubernatorial campaign of Cynthia Nixon, de Blasio has become more emboldened to shine light on Cuomo’s role and so now we have what appears to be real momentum for the kind of fix – and modernization – that a system of this scope and grandeur deserves.
Ridership is nearly six million daily on the subway and 2.5 million on the buses. It really is an amazing opportunity to go places in this city at any hour with some measure of confidence you’ll get there in a safe and timely way. The greatness of the public transit system is a large part of why I live here – and why I’ll stay here if I can continue to afford the rent.
The whiners will be whiners. I don’t pay too much attention to them but their chorus of irrational complaints is impossible not to hear. At the end of my Mom’s last visit back in July, I went with her to take the bus to LaGuardia. There was an impatient crowd at the bus stop. About 75 or so of us had been waiting longer than the usual ten minutes or so for a Q70 to the airport. Seeing the problem, a MTA bus dispatcher rerouted a Woodside-bound trip to the airport and instructed the waiting mob to pile on via a makeshift stop on Broadway. As passengers scurried to board, some yelled disparaging things to the dispatcher about the bus’ failure to keep a schedule. “There’s bad congestion at the airport,” he said. “We’re having a hard time getting in and out of there.”
Instead of being thankful to the dispatcher for creatively deploying a bus out of nowhere, they let him have it because he represented some delay they’d experienced on public transit either that morning or before.
On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving Day last week, I saw that same dispatcher stop a double-long Q53 returning from Rockaway (headed to Woodside) and convert it to a Q70 to LaGuardia to accommodate a huge throng of tourists (many of whom had suitcases). It was an amazing display of dexterity by both the dispatcher and the driver to suddenly change up the routine – on behalf of an institution or bureaucracy that is often labeled as ineffective, stodgy or resistant to change because of its union culture.
Here’s another story of greatness by a MTA worker (a second-hand account). My co-worker at the airport John takes public transit to the job. As he was getting his select bus paper receipt for the M60 from a machine in Astoria, his Metrocard with 80 bucks loaded on it was eaten by the machine. Not sure how to get the value on the card returned, John copied down the machine’s ID number and pocketed the paper receipt that came out when his card got eaten. When he exited the bus at LaGuardia, a MTA worker was servicing the machines at that stop. John told him what happened to his card. The guy said it was actually a common problem and that he’d go to Astoria to check out that machine to see if he could recover it. Sure enough, a few hours later, John got a call on his cell phone and the guy had come back to LaGuardia to hand him the card.
Hope and inspiration has come from near the top too as new NYC Transit boss Andy Byford appears cut from a cloth different than most bureaucrats. Byford came on a year ago and has immediately become the face of the system. He’s rides it every day and stops to introduce himself to the rank and file. Byford is said to pick up trash when he sees it on the platform and he’s been tirelessly speaking about the specific changes that need to be made to make the system run smoother.
I expect improvement under Byford’s reign with the new revenue stream in 2019. But to me, that will just make an unfairly maligned system that much better.