I haven’t been anywhere outside New York City in more than six months for obvious reasons. The feeling of being stuck may be much the same wherever you are.
To lament how lousy it is out there – here – or where you sit – doesn’t help. The virus in NYC is suppressed impressively at the moment but there are worried looks over the shoulder to see if it’s coming back. Lotta wheels are spinning without much forward motion. An economy that relies on the arts, food, drink, tourists and buildings full of office workers has been blown to bits. A lot of people are hurting for all to see and lots more are in bad shape out of sight.
We need a vaccine.
The fight to get to the other side can be seen here everywhere you look. Food distribution, the fiery debate on how to open public school for a million-plus kids and a desperate effort to convert portions of city streets into makeshift outdoor dining squats.
Bicyclists and pedestrians are out in droves. They’re trying to retain some of the turf they took over when the streets were empty. Vehicular traffic is creeping back up to pre-pandemic levels, so you’re seeing friction from the conflict over how best to move people around.
No doubt the greatest piece of infrastructure New York City has is its subway system. It takes you quickly, reliably, safely and at all hours to pretty much wherever you need to go. I’ve ridden a lot of public transit in this country and in Europe and the New York City subway is far and away the best. It’s largely why I chose to live here.
But now the subway is in huge trouble.
The state agency that manages it (the MTA) is off $200 million a week on the revenue side. Ridership was down 95 percent in late March / early April and has now plateaued at about a quarter of normal. 131 MTA workers died from the virus, most during a frantic several weeks when the city was on its knees in early April.
The MTA has shelved capital projects including really important efforts to make the subway accessible to people who can’t handle stairs. The agency’s credit rating has been downgraded four times since the pandemic started which means MTA chairman Pat Foye says borrowing is becoming near impossible. Foye says he needs $12 billion in federal government bailout money to get through this year and next. If not, he says, a mix of service cuts, fare hikes and furloughs come next.
As a rider who uses the system at odd hours, my biggest concern and frustration throughout all this is that the governor decided in April to shut the subway down overnight.
Effective May 6, Governor Cuomo barred passengers from using the New York City subway system every night from 1 to 5 AM. It’s the first time in the subway’s 116 year history that it’s been anything other than a 24-7 system.
Why did the Governor take this action?
This is the problem.
While the rest of the country sees Cuomo as a rising rational and pragmatic voice via those widely carried powerpoint presentations carried on the cable news networks, his action on the subway was a sneaky deception.
When the city’s tabloids splashed photos of subway cars filled with homeless people stretched out horizontal during the pandemic’s peak on the front pages, Cuomo started feeling heat. The coverage implied linkage between the homeless in train cars and the widespread infection of MTA workers.
Cuomo could have pursued a legitimate coordinated effort to deal with a longstanding problem humanely but he can never pass up a chance to dump or foist a difficult quandary onto the city and its current mayor. Instead of working with the city to strengthen the notion that the subway is a system to move people around rather than shelter them, Cuomo made the politically expedient and horribly damaging decision to shut the subway down every night at 1 AM.
It was a back door trick to eject the homeless. Rather than a polite, perhaps enforced reminder to all riders that you pay the fare, you sit upright, you get on at point A and exit the system at point B – Cuomo said he’s gonna take his ball and go home.
To me, it is not lacking in compassion to insist that a ride on the subway carries with it adherence to rules. You get on, you get off. You can’t live down there.
From the perspective of the homeless who were filling the subway cars all night, they didn’t want to go near a crowded shelter when the virus was at its peak. Heck, they don’t like the shelters on a good day. But Cuomo’s maneuver to shut the subway down because he didn’t know what else to do is where we’re at now.
He sold the shutdown by saying that cleaning would be enhanced. But the real reason is that he wanted to get the homeless off the trains and didn’t know how to do it humanely.
So, now late at night, the MTA ties a narrow strip of orange tape to the railings at all the subway entrances to signify the system’s “closure.” The trains still run. The station booths are still manned. But when a train stops at the station, only MTA workers can board. The system is “closed” but the trains are still running. The MTA has turned off the real-time data on train movement so as not to make guys like me totally nuts. When the closure first started, I’d watch the app and see fully functioning trains carry out their mission but without allowing regular workers and night owls to ride.
Foye says only 1-percent or about 10 to 15 thousand riders use the system from 1-5 AM. He pegs resumption of overnight service to the “end of the pandemic” but leaves the definition of that unclear. Lately, he says he’ll rely on guidance from public health officials to determine the pandemic’s end.
Given what we know now about the relative lack of concern re: surface transmission, Foye and Cuomo’s ongoing cling to the cited reason for the closure is out the window. Even when we thought disinfecting benches and poles was important, who’s to say that can’t be done without “closing” the system overnight.
The overnight closure’s impact was lessened somewhat initially by a concurrent program dubbed by the MTA as “Essential Connector.” Riders relying on the subway overnight would get a free cab ride if they met certain conditions. My work schedule was erratic in May and June and I worked nights in July. I scrambled to make the last train from Queens into Manhattan and it usually worked out largely because my employer adjusted my shift a bit to make it work.
In August, I reverted back to my regular shift, a 415 AM start. In normal times, I’d catch the F train at Delancey at about 230 AM and arrive LaGuardia by about 340 AM via the Q70 bus from Jackson Heights. With no subway option, I was left to a patchwork of bus routes, none of them good. I was reluctant to explore Essential Connector because I get nervous in cars. But I started hearing from co-workers using Connector and they were all raving about it.
To be eligible, your route from home to work would either require more than one bus transfer or exceed 80 minutes in length as determined by the app. In my case, the app wants me to take the M15 bus up First Avenue to the M60 with the connection in East Harlem at 125th Street. That’s not a path I want to take given the chaos in that neighborhood at that hour. Luckily, the app calculated that route at 82 minutes. I signed up for Connector and used it the entire month of August. I documented each trip below:
Sunday, August 2: My maiden voyage using Essential Connector. I get a text at 235 AM that says Chaudry will arrive in four minutes driving a yellow NYC taxi. The text says the vehicle will be a Ford Fusion. The medallion number is cited. I jump in the elevator and walk out the door of my building as Chaudry is pulling up. The reservation I made through NYC Transit two days earlier routed my request through the Curb app which (as I understand it) links potential riders with smartphones to the network of accredited city taxis who sign up for Curb. It’s a sort-of counter to Uber, which devastated existing regulated taxi structures in big cities. Chaudy confirms my destination and speeds onto the Williamsburg Bridge. The meter shows zero and doesn’t move. During the early stage of the ride, Chaudy fiddles with his phone a bit and I’m immediately nervous about the distraction. I settle in better when he docks his phone and gets on the BQE. He’s a left lane guy going pretty fast but not as fast as some of the nut cases flying at 80 or 90 plus to our right. Entering the airport, Chaudry asks if I want arrivals or departures and I say it doesn’t matter. As he drops me on arrivals (level 2), the fare briefly flashes at $26 and change but then goes back to zero. I’m guessing this is what is billed to the MTA. The new central terminal at LaGuardia has three levels. Departures (level 3), arrivals (level 2) and the “Bus/H-O-V” lane (level 1). Now on level 2, I find that every door to enter the terminal is locked. I’m approached by a flight attendant looking for a way in. It’s her first day on the job. We’re locked out. I call the airport operator on my phone for help and she gets word to the terminal manager that we’re stuck outside. Fifteen minutes go by. At about 320 AM, we get let in and learn that both the second and third levels are locked until 345 AM. Once you’re dropped off on either of those two levels, you’re stuck. We’re advised that the only access point overnight is on level 1 – and the only way right now to reach level 1 is via the 94th Street bridge.
Monday, August 3: This ride was routed through the Corporate Transportation Group (CTG), a Brooklyn-based car service company. Their web site is a grid of dead links but it displays a mission statement that sounds good: “Next-generation solutions to booking ground transportation for corporations.” I receive word as I get out of shower (via text and email) that a black Toyota Sienna helmed by Pingping is “on the way.” Included is the “car number,” license plate number and the driver’s phone number. The “servicing company” is listed as “Inspiration Group Inc.” A link in the text to “track your ride” doesn’t work but Pingping pulls up a few minutes early. We exchange greetings and she says: “You’re going to JFK?” No, I say, LaGuardia, terminal B. “And we have to try to go to level 1, the HOV lane, via the 94th Street Bridge.” Pingping finds this information to be not easily transferable into her navigation software so we agree that I’ll handle the directions as we approach the airport. She drives fast but attentively and I have confidence in our safety. The BQE is famously bumpy and the Sienna’s shocks are shot so my only irrational concern on the ride is whether the rear axle will break.
Tuesday, August 4: Just a few minutes before go time, I get the info: Samye will be driving a black Toyota Avalon. As I wait out in front of the building, Samye calls to confirm the location. I tell him to look for the big brown building without really thinking it’s dark out. This is another CTG/Inspiration arrangement and I jump in just a couple minutes past the scheduled pickup time. I’ve built in so much buffer, the driver could be 45 minutes late and I’d still make it to work in plenty of time. Samye is a young, alert fellow who is extremely pleasant as we discuss the destination. He’s listening to round-the-clock news radio. His driving style is perfect. If only all vehicular experiences could be so pleasant.
Thursday, August 6: I push back the pick-up time to 3 AM after punching the clock at work a full hour or more before my shift started on the couple of previous rides in. This time, there’s no advance text or email as we approach go time – so I start to get worried and call the dispatcher at CTG/Inspiration. My driver is dropping off a fare in the West Village and should reach me in the next ten minutes, says the dispatcher. Up rolls Pingping at about 305 AM in her Sienna. I’m watching the speedometer as we blaze a trail on the BQE. 70, 75, 77. And then I see Pingping’s chin drop to her chest. It bobs back up and down again. I have an almost perfect view of her face via the rear-view mirror. Her eyes are fluttering, shut more than open and the speeding car is drifting outside the painted lane markers. Instead of being petrified with all the physical chaos usually triggered in these types of instances, I simply say to myself that this is how it ends. I knew it would end this way. After quickly snapping out of resignation mode, I politely attempt to initiate conversation with Pingping. “Are you tired,” I say. “Yes,” she said as she rubs her face up and down. “We’re almost there,” I say. “Exit 6 is just a couple miles away.” She yawns which tells me she may at least be fighting it off now instead surrendering to slumber. Eye flutter mode continued the rest of the way as I made chatter without a lecture. To myself, I promise to quit the free car pickups and get on the bus to the bus to the bus on my next commute. As the work day goes on, I think about the 13 minute car ride with a potentially dangerous driver versus standing in the dark on Allen Street waiting for a bus to a bus to a bus. I decide that bad outcomes are a flip of the coin – and change my mind. I will continue to book the free taxi ride.
Sunday, August 9: Still on edge from the Pingping nod-off on the last ride, I get a pretty good voyage from “Md” in a Prius V. The trip was routed through CTG but handled by “Myle” which is an Uber-like outfit. Md’s cell phone rings as we cross the Kosciuszko. He lets it ring. It rings again. Again, he ignores it. It rings one more time. He can’t resist and picks up. He hunches forward discreetly and speaks softly. It’s hands free but I can’t erase the conclusion of an exhaustive study out a few years ago which said that a driver loses significant concentration while in the midst of a phone call.
Monday, August 10: This ride started off great but quickly escalated into the same level of horror I felt during the Pingping doze job. Abedalrohman arrived in a Toyota “Rav 4.” A certified New York City taxi driven by a certified NYC taxi driver. We exchanged pleasantries and Abed took a slug of coffee before pulling it into gear. The alertness was all there. You could tell he was a pro. But when he entered the BQE, he put the hammer down. It was a race to the checkered flag. We were going 80 – turns be damned. I slouched deep into my seat and didn’t say a word. There is no speed enforcement on the highways / expressways of New York City right now. Pooling water in the sharp merge curve linking the BQE to the Grand Central should have put us into a death spin but we came out of it intact. “I haven’t been to LaGuardia in months,” said Abed. “Guys come to pick up and they sit here for four, five hours.”
Tuesday, August 11: Abid is prompt, driving a yellow NYC taxi. I feel at ease immediately and gaze out the window toward the lower tip of Manhattan as we cross the Billy B. We’re in no rush. That water situation on the merge onto the Grand Central is now a waterfall coming from the Astoria Boulevard viaduct but we don’t care because we’re going at a safe speed. Abid puts his wipers on. I wish all the rides could be just like this.
Thursday, August 13: My originally assigned ride scratched about 10 minutes before the 3 AM pickup and Shahed swooped in with the late assignment driving a green outerborough taxi. A Ford Escape. There’s weirdly no foot room for the passenger in this vehicle but it doesn’t matter on a voyage this quick. Shaded was an excellent driver. Safe, alert.
Sunday, August 16: Mukhridin called me a bit lost. I was standing outside when he called and the noise from the passing traffic made it difficult to hear him. He pulled up just a couple minutes past three. This was the first time a Curb-app arranged ride sent a non-taxi. Mukhridin was driving a newish, nice gray Toyota Camry. His seat was reclined at about 45 degrees and he was cranking hip-hop through a nice sound system. Before entering the bridge, he pulled off to the side to plug in the destination in his navigation. I was glad for that. A slow, weaving car in front of us on the BQE made me nervous as we approached but Mukhridin was cautious with the pass.
Monday, August 17: Seydou arrived promptly in a yellow taxi. I was standing on the sidewalk waiting for him just before he got there because I charted his progress on the real-time map in the Curb software. It appeared Seydou crossed the Manhattan bridge from Brooklyn to reach me. His cab smelled like a sewer which could possibly be explained by the fact the outside air sometimes reeks of sewage overnight – especially close to the river. The seat belt was jammed on the right side passenger seat so I slid over to the left side and buckled up. Seydou played 1010 WINS (a 24-hour news station on the AM dial) and turned up the volume when a story about Trump’s disdain for the US Postal Service was read. The meter was zeroed out but flashed $23 and change when he dropped me off. I’m not sure if that’s what he gets from the MTA for the ride but if that’s the case – it would be below the standard fare by about $5 to $7.
Tuesday, August 18: Aziz picks up in a gray minivan. It’s pouring rain and we exchange greetings through the front right window. He’s trying to tell me something. I don’t understand and slide open the right-side main cabin door. As it opens, I now understand he was trying to tell me not to open that door because it opens to a collapsible wheelchair ramp. I get in on the left side. The seat belts are confusing and I fussed with them all the way across the bridge which was good because it took my mind off the fact the pelting rain was making visibility bad. The lane lines are faded enough on the BQE in good weather but in the rain, the driver is just guessing where the lanes are. Aziz was a pro though. He had a large paper cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee in his console and seemed focused. He took a phone call at the very end of the ride, speaking what sounded like Russian.
Thursday, August 20: Kwadwo arrives in a yellow taxi, a boxy, brand-newish looking Nissan NV 200 van. It’s a sweet ride all the way. There was an erratic driver in front of us starting at about the Roosevelt Ave. exit on the BQE for a mile or so but Kwadwo approached him and ultimately passed with great caution.
Sunday, August 23: Satinder is driving a black Camry. He’s the perfect driver. Focused, patient. No rush. I think about trying to make conversation given my relaxed state but the window is open and it would be shouting level to rise above it. As I exit his car, I think to myself that I could probably get used to this routine of being driven to work every day.
Monday, August 24: Arnold puts his double blinkers on as he pulls up. I live on Delancey, which is a busy thoroughfare. My building is just shy of the Williamsburg Bridge. The Brooklyn-bound traffic is racing across three lanes to get on the bridge, so an abrupt stop in the right lane has the potential to surprise oncoming vehicles. Usage of the hazard lights is a good move. Arnold has jumpy, up and down action on the accelerator of the yellow Toyota Prius but he doesn’t go too fast. My grandfather had a similar driving style. He’d pump the accelerator somewhat erratically but was careful in all other facets. A handmade sign on the clear barrier between the front seat and back said: “No mask, No ride !!!”
Tuesday, August 25: Mandeep picks up in a brown Chevy Malibu. He’s a half hour early and calls to tell me he’s parked outside. I’m ready. He has what looks like a small cartoonish bobble-head doll with exaggerated neck action mounted to the center of the dash. It bounces around as we launch. It’s a bit distracting but the ride is smooth. I gaze downtown as we cross the bridge and get the great view of lower Manhattan. This is the last ride before I go on vacation – and in fact – it’s the last free ride under the Essential Connector program.
At the end of August, the MTA pulled the plug on Essential Connector, citing cost. I figured it would run concurrent to the closure but now those who relied on those taxis are on their own. The MTA is touting the creation of new overnight bus routes that connect the Bronx, Manhattan and Brooklyn. None of the three new routes include Queens.
I’m on vacation for a good portion of September. When I return to work, I’ll go bus to bus to bus and hope for the best. I also closely monitor all MTA public business and local journalists covering transit for hints about restoration of overnight subway service. At the moment, it seems like 24/7 subway isn’t front and center given all else that’s happening in the city. The constituency that relies on it is not noisy or influential.
While it’s Cuomo and Foye who are in charge on this issue and the broader future of public transit here (including the commuter rail system), I should also mention Sarah Feinberg. She replaced Andy Byford as president of NYC Transit (she has interim tag) just before the pandemic broke out. Byford was widely beloved by riders and subway workers for his geeky, constant presence in the system and his convincing manner. Cuomo pushed Byford out by undercutting him several times, in part because Byford’s genuine commitment to public transit stood in contrast to Cuomo’s phoniness.
So, we lost Byford and now have Feinberg. She has an impressive management resume but seems in deep following a leader of Byford’s stature. Her day-to-day oversight of the subway and buses started at perhaps the most difficult stage in the history of transit here. There’s anger from the workforce about the lives’ lost and a significant part of the ridership is afraid to ride the system.
Each leader is different but my advice would be to follow the lead of Byford. Ride the system constantly. Interact with the workforce and riders relentlessly. Be enthusiastic about the infrastructure that exists and sing its praises as Byford did.
As it is, Feinberg acts unsure and unsteady about the system she manages. She raised eyebrows as the MTA was processing its first batch of bailout money – telling the Daily News that there was no org chart for the agency’s 70-thousand strong workforce, making it difficult to know where fat was to be cut.
She stammers with uncertainty at public meetings. Her opening 30-second response to a question about promotion of mask use at the July 22, 2020 MTA board meeting was littered with eight “ums” or “uhs.”
A month later, she appeared before a joint legislative committee via video feed. Responding to a question from upstate assemblyman Phil Palmesano about resumption of fare collection on buses, Feinberg weaved “uh” or “um” into her 47-second response a distressing 10 times.
MTA flack Tim Minton is a former local TV reporter and does a good job giving access to the agency to a rising number of relevant non-traditional news sites covering transit. Minton is also entertaining as he moderates the round-the-horn Q and A with Foye at the end of the monthly meetings.
I think however long it takes the city to make a comeback will determine how much damage there will be to transit. It could be a while. A year, at least. I have faith in Foye to the extent that it seems like he knows the city’s strength and ability to rebound goes hand-in-hand with good, reliable public transit. Unfortunately, Foye takes his orders from Cuomo who’s sitting and plotting political ambition 150 miles north of here.