3 ways to fix the New York City subway before it’s too late

The MTA has never been worse. Can tech solve the problem?

Mar 1, 2020, 7:49 am*

Internet Culture

I hate stating the obvious, but New York City’s subway is broken. Not broken in the sense that it doesn’t work—you can, with enough patience and discomfort, still get from point A to point B—but broken in just about every other regard: performance, consistency, management, oversight, finances, future prospects, and so on. And while griping about the subway is a decades-old pastime for New Yorkers, I’ve been riding it for over 11 years, and I don’t think it’s ever been worse than it is now.

Here’s a summary of my commute this morning: I walked into the Bedford L station around 9:45am and immediately encountered chaos. Hordes of would-be passengers were exiting the station (never a good sign!), yet the platform was still clogged with confused commuters. On the Manhattan-bound track, a train sat with its doors open, though no one knew if that train was actually going to Manhattan. Ten minutes later, an announcement explained that there were no trains going to Manhattan and suggested we travel to Broadway Junction to catch the A or C into Manhattan. 

Back on the street, it was impossible to get a taxi, so I and every other frustrated commuter angrily tapped away at our smartphones. Uber was at 2.8x surge pricing, if you could find one, and Lyft was double the normal price and also fully booked. I gave up, walked to Greenpoint to take the dreaded G, and transferred to the E. All in all, it took me 75 minutes to get to work. I wish I could say this was a rare occurrence, but this kind of breakdown has become all too familiar.

A study released by the Metropolitan Transit Authority last month confirms that there’s a dire situation underground. As Jalopnik reported, the total number of “terminal delays” (e.g., a train arriving late to the last stop on its route) in 2014 increased a staggering 45.6 percent over 2013’s figures, which were already bad to begin with. To pull out the most dramatic statistic, the 5 train experienced terminal delays 57 percent of the time last year. Another metric called “wait assessment” (a debatably accurate measure of the theoretical wait time for a train vs. the actual wait time) showed that, systemwide, trains were behind schedule 21.2 percent of the time. Does this sound like a transportation network worthy of one the world’s most important cities?

Meanwhile, the MTA is in financial straits of epic proportions. The agency current holds $34.1 billion in debt for bonds that were issued to fund capital investments; the Straphangers Campaign, an advocacy group, points out that this figure exceeds the debt of at least 30 nations around the world. This year alone, $2.2 billion will be spent on servicing debt obligations, which accounts for a full 17 percent of the annual operating budget

Meanwhile, the MTA’s $31.2 billion capital plan for 2015-2019 faces a funding gap of $15.2 billion, with no clear indication from Albany how it will come up with that money. And even with no additional borrowing, which seems highly unlikely, the agency’s debt is expected to balloon to $39 billion by 2018, according to New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. It’s no coincidence that this is all happening under a governor whose interest in supporting public transit is non-existent and who in recent years has dipped into the MTA’s operating budget to fill holes in the state budget. Keep in mind that the next round of fare hikes start in a few days, and we’ll see more in 2017.

So yes, the subway is broken, and the situation isn’t going to get better in the coming years. Though there are hundreds of ways the subway could be improved and be made more comfortable for riders, pleasantries are of little concern right now. We’re at a crisis point that calls for solutions to ensure that the subway at least reverses its downward spiral. Here are three tech-focused ideas that would help fix the subway.

1) Revamped train tracking and reporting

For reasons that remain unclear, the MTA chooses to obscure any metrics that capture the reality of taking the subway. Terminal delays are misleading because trains that are severely behind schedule in the most congested parts of the city can make up for lost time along the less-crowded section of their routes. Meanwhile, wait assessments are calculated by separating weekday vs. weekend service, which hides how bad service can be during rush hours. (The Straphangers Campaign has argued that wait assessments should be measured as peak vs. non-peak hours, regardless of day, for more accurate numbers.) And let’s not forget that wait assessments don’t take into account riders who wait longer because they can’t fit on overcrowded trains.

Whether the MTA is trying to hide an accurate picture of its service from the government or the public (or both), the time has come for total transparency. An electronic train-tracking service called I-TRAC was recently installed on letter lines to better monitor delays, but this system needs to be implemented systemwide. For the record, wait assessments are calculated based on a sample of trains that are monitored by humans, not computers. In this day and age, it’s not preposterous to suggest that the MTA be able to track every single train in its system in real-time and record that data 24 hours a day.

Once that capability is created, the MTA needs to drastically alter the way it reports on its performance. With more sophisticated data capture comes more sophisticated reporting, so the MTA should be able to come up with a more accurate measure for wait assessments. Only once we have a clearer picture of the subway’s on-time performance during rush hours, and other key measurements, can we begin to understand how bad the situation is. 

To be clear, the numbers would almost certainly be disheartening and enrage subway riders, but denial is no longer a solution. Once we see the true numbers, that will be the foundation of an argument for the state to provide better funding and protection for this failing system.

2) An Uber-like MTA app

Once the MTA has the ability to track all of its trains in real-time, they should pass that ability on to their customers via an app. (The station clocks that display when the next train is coming may be useful for minimizing feelings of passenger despair, but they’re useless from a planning perspective.) There already is an app called Subway Time that sort of fulfills this need, but it only works for eight subway lines plus the Staten Island Railway. What subway riders need is the ability to see real-time movements for every line, which would be especially useful when comparing multiple routes. 

In addition, users could set up push notifications to learn about delays on designated lines. An app like this would greatly improve the relationship between the MTA and its passengers, as riders would be able to make informed choices about their transit and, hopefully, be less disgruntled as a result.

How should the MTA pay for these technological upgrades? Charge a nominal, one-time fee when the app is downloaded. If the app is designed correctly, it will be essential for both residents and tourists, and the app revenue would offset the costs, if not cover them completely.

3) Solar panels on outdoor stations

In addition to maximizing advertising profits, earning revenue from mobile carriers and Wi-Fi providers, and moving toward an NFC payment system, all of which are already in the works to some extent, the MTA must begin to further diversify its revenue streams. At present, the agency is reliant on an unfriendly state legislature, loans that will continue to eat away at its operating budget, and fare revenue, the latter of which covers less than half of the annual operating budget.

One solution is for the MTA to get in the energy game. Between the subway, Metro-North, Staten Island Railway, and Long Island Railroad, the MTA manages dozens of outdoor stations, all of which could be outfitted with solar panels. Not only would this defray the agency’s energy costs, but it could also sell excess output on the open market to generate funds. In doing so, the MTA would be come a 21 century organization, leveraging everything it has to provide multiple services, a change that is sorely needed given how stuck it seems to be in the past. 

Photo via A. Strakey/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)

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*First Published: Mar 17, 2015, 11:30 am