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Why New York’s Lettered Subway Lines Are ‘Cursed’



subway new york

Subway officials in New York City held a news conference recently to celebrate the system’s progress. The on-time rate for trains hit 76 percent, they boasted, signaling a “renaissance” for the floundering system.

But that figure masks a surprising disparity.

While the numbered lines have seen a notable boost in reliability, many of the lettered lines are still delivering poor service. The F train has a miserable on-time rate of about 50 percent — the lowest in the system.

“It seems like there’s always something, from a sick passenger to signal problems,” said Paul Galloway, an F train rider who lives in Brooklyn and works at the Museum of Modern Art. “It just seems like a cursed line to me.”

It is clear that the subway is improving after hitting rock bottom in the summer of 2017, when a train derailed in Harlem and the on-time rate dipped below 65 percent — the worst of any major transit system in the world. The subway’s leader, Andy Byford, has won accolades for making the system more reliable.

But the diverging fates of the lines represented by letters and numbers can feel like A Tale of Two Subways — a system where some riders see signs of hope while others continue to endure constant pain.

Subway leaders say there are several reasons for the gulf: schedule changes on the numbered lines that boosted the on-time rate; a computer system on the numbered lines that allows workers to more efficiently dispatch trains; the opening of the Second Avenue subway, which eased crowding on several numbered lines; and signal upgrades that improved service on another numbered line.

The trend has left some riders wondering how to game the system to get where they are going on time.

“The numbered lines have more stops, but they arrive more regularly and are less prone to problems,” said Benjamin Kabak, who writes the Second Ave. Sagas subway blog and lives near several lines in Brooklyn. “Do you roll the dice and take the ideally faster way, or do you take the way you know is going to work?”
The seven numbered subway lines are on time about 79 percent of the time, compared to about 68 percent for the fifteen lettered lines. Trains are considered on time if they reach the final stop within five minutes of the schedule.

One reason the lettered lines are lagging is that they have older equipment. Some lettered lines are slated to get modern signals, which should improve reliability. But Mr. Byford’s plan to modernize the entire subway will cost billions of dollars, and it is not clear whether state leaders will approve new funding streams for the transit system this year.

Still, every line has improved as part of a broader effort to make trains run faster, said Sally Librera, the head of the subways department. Workers are increasing speed limits on parts of the system and replacing faulty signals that slowed trains.

Transit officials point to other statistics that show subway service is improving, including fewer major incidents that delay 50 or more trains.

“We recognize that we have more to do,” Ms. Librera said. “But we’re encouraged by the progress that we’re seeing.”

The subway now has its best on-time rate in four years — a figure that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is highlighting as he presses state lawmakers to approve congestion pricing, a proposal to toll drivers entering the busiest part of Manhattan to raise money for the transit system. Mr. Cuomo, who controls the subway, is also pushing for reforms at the transit agency, though the State Senate issued a separate reform proposal.

Critics have raised concerns over the schedule changes in late 2017 that made it easier to ensure that certain numbered trains are on time. On the No. 6 line, five trains were eliminated at Grand Central Station in Manhattan during the morning rush from 7 to 9 a.m., according to documents obtained by The New York Times.

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There were 68 trains scheduled on the 6 line during the morning rush in June 2017. The number fell to 63 last year. The on-time rate for the 6 train jumped to 72 percent in January, up from 52 percent in September 2017.

“I’m inherently skeptical when they say we changed the schedule, and now everything is running on time,” Mr. Kabak said. “You’re running the risk of padding the schedule.”
Subway officials denied padding the schedule and said the changes were needed to accurately reflect how long it took to route trains through the system.

“Adjusting schedules to accurately reflect actual system conditions allows for less train congestion and faster, more reliable service,” said Maxwell Young, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the system. “This, along with other significant factors such as the $800 million Subway Action Plan and deliberately improved operating procedures, have led to the recent subway performance gains.”

Though fewer trains are scheduled, the same number of trains are running on the 6 line during the morning rush — an average of about 61 trains, Mr. Young said. Officials also cut service on the No. 1 and 5 lines, which each lost two scheduled trains in Midtown Manhattan during the morning rush.

While fewer trains could help raise the on-time performance, they also can lead to more crowded trains and less capacity on the system. Each train can carry roughly 1,000 passengers.

Most riders never learned about the schedule changes. The authority’s board did not approve them because they only vote on “major” service changes, said Shams Tarek, a spokesman for the authority. The schedule changes on the numbered lines were considered “minor” and the board was merely notified.

An investigation by The New York Times in 2017 revealed that the transit agency was running fewer trains. The Lexington Avenue line, which carries the 4, 5 and 6 trains, regularly failed to meet its schedule, effectively canceling dozens of trains and reducing the system’s capacity by tens of thousands of riders. At Grand Central Station, just 77 of 90 scheduled trains regularly ran through the stop from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m.

For years, the lettered trains actually had better on-time rates than the numbered trains, but that shifted in January 2018, shortly after the schedule changes took effect. Ms. Librera cited two other factors behind the resurgence: The Second Avenue line opened on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in January 2017, drawing riders who had previously used the overburdened 4, 5 and 6 lines, which bolstered the on-time rate for those lines. New signals on the No. 7 line also improved service.

Most experts agree that the system is bouncing back. Andrew Albert, a board member who represents riders, said he noticed trains running faster along the Lexington Avenue line in Manhattan where they used to move at a snail’s pace.

“Absolutely, it’s getting better,” he said. “I’m thwarted less often, and I notice the running times are much faster.”


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MTA News

Thursday’s Headlines: Let’s Focus on Buses Today!




mayor de blasio

If you want to run for president, there’s no better platform than, “I sped up buses by 25 percent in the most congested city in America!” So when Mayor de Blasio makes what’s expected to be a big announcement about the city’s bus service today at 2:30, we’re hoping he brings that particular plank.

Our own David Meyer — who started the day with coverage of another crucial bus issue! — will be on hand to provide coverage. He’ll also ask the mayor why so many people are being killed by drivers on city streets this year. Or why he’s still cracking down on e-bikes even though the data show they’re safe, according to this scoop by Julianne Cuba. That’s an official “heads-up!” Mr. Mayor.

Here’s the rest of the news to get you going:

Activists held a “die-in” at City Hall yesterday to protest inaction on global warming, which certainly won’t go away if every two-bit politician keeps getting discount tolls for entitled drivers. (NYDN, NY Post, Gothamist)

The Daily News offered a fuller look at the crash that killed 7-year-old Cameron Brown yesterday.
Mayor de Blasio’s highly subsidized ferry system came under fire at a City Council hearing. Right now, taxpayers are the only thing keeping these boats afloat (well, and the laws of hydrodynamics, of course). (NY Post) The Times also weighed in on the excessive costs. Meanwhile, amNY’s Vin Barone highlighted the fallacy of the mayor’s claim that the ferries serve the less-fortunate. “Boats only for the wealthy?” he asked.

Meanwhile, The City reported on an obvious conflict of interest involving the ferries.
We were very happy to see the Post’s Nolan Hicks take the side of transit riders over selfish drivers, who scored yet another toll exemption yesterday.
Hard-working Hicks at the Post also reported on Council Member Justin Brannan’s call for more oversight on Citi Bike after its e-bike fleet was grounded for repairs over the weekend. Streetsblog’s coverage revealed very little oversight, in fact.

Look, here are the rules about animals on the subway. (Gothamist)
Could the rumors be true? Could the city be finally closing the gap in the Second Avenue bike lane near the Queensboro Bridge? (Billy Freeland via Twitter)
Usually when you say “He is risen!” on Easter, you’re talking about Christ. This year, you’ll be talking about the subway fare. (amNY)


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MTA News

On East Side Access, Cuomo again second-guesses his own MTA




subway new york

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is once again telling his Metropolitan Transportation Authority to go to L—by bringing it academic experts to review one of its biggest boondoggles.

The panel of Cornell and Columbia engineering professors that came up with an alternative to closing the L train tunnel for repairs will review the long-delayed East Side Access project, Cuomo announced Thursday. Intended to bring Long Island Rail Road trains into Grand Central Terminal, the price tag has bloated from an estimated $2.2 billion in the 1990s to $11.2 billion, and the deadline crept from 2012 until 2022.

“How can you be that wrong? You can’t be. And how can it take so long?” the governor told a gathering of the Association for a Better New York. “At this rate, I don’t think I’m going to be alive for the opening of the East Side Access.”

He explained, “We’re going to bring a new team in, similar to what we did with the L train, have them overlook all the construction, all the design, and see if there’s a better way to do it.”
The governor and his proxies once defended the project and the MTA, which he controls. But more recently he has turned to ridiculing its practices and denying responsibility for its shortcomings.

He said Thursday that East Side Access would ultimately prove “transformative,” but requires insight and input from outside the “transportation-industrial complex” that he claims dominates the MTA.

“It will be phenomenal. But we have to get it done, and we need a new set of eyes to do it,” he said.

The governor turned and walked off when Crain’s asked why he had waited until his ninth year in office to address the oversights and overruns involved in the project. But Patrick Foye, whom Cuomo installed as MTA chairman less than a week ago, defended bringing in the Ivy League academics to review a project that is roughly 90% complete.

“Looking at it at this stage, I think, is exactly the right thing to do,” Foye told reporters. Foye had been MTA president since August 2017.


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MTA News

Why Busy Cities Are Trying Congestion Pricing for Cars




traffic jam new york

In August of 2017, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared to a New York Times reporter that “congestion pricing is an idea whose time has come.” In the face of a subway crisis, historically slow bus speeds, and epic gridlock worsened by the proliferation of for-hire vehicles like Lyft and Uber, getting around New York City had truly reached a breaking point.

Now, a year and a half later, New York appears poised to pass some version of congestion pricing in the next state budget, even though we still don’t know any important details about it. Politics!

That being said, the very idea of congestion pricing is poorly understood, both by elected officials and the general public. Is it a tax? A surcharge? A toll? Should it apply to all vehicles and drivers? Who will be most impacted? Does it work? What is it supposed to accomplish, exactly? And what cities besides New York are trying it?

What Is Congestion Pricing?
There are several different variations of congestion pricing, but the core principle is a surcharge for drivers entering a dense urban core. Some proposals feature variable pricing depending on the time of day to encourage drivers to either not drive into the city at peak hours or shift their journey to another time of day with less traffic.

The current proposal in New York is to establish a congestion pricing charge in what’s known as the Central Business District, or CBD, which is the part of Manhattan south of 60th St down to the Financial District.
Drivers are expected to pay about $12 to $15 per trip into the CBD (only once per day) and trucks about double that. To give context, coming into Manhattan from the Brooklyn–Battery Tunnel costs about $5.76 currently.

In all likelihood, the payment will use the same toll technology deployed at the region’s bridges and tunnels which scan E-ZPasses or, if a car doesn’t have one, snaps a picture of the license plate and sends the registered driver a bill.

It is also widely assumed that this charge would already take into account tolls levied on bridges or tunnels so drivers aren’t double-charged the same day.

Where Is Congestion Pricing Currently Used?
Three cities already use congestion pricing: London, Stockholm, and Singapore. The FixNYC panel report, published last year, details all three. In short:

London has had congestion pricing since 2003. Entering what’s called the “cordon zone” from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. initially cost drivers about $7.50, but that has more than doubled since and the zone has expanded by eight square miles. (The city is also implementing an “Ultra Low Emission Zone,” which will affect a smaller area than the congestion charge, but will be an extra $16.50 or so on top of the congestion price if your vehicle does not comply with certain emissions standards. But this is more of a polluters tax than a congestion charge.)

Stockholm implemented a congestion pricing pilot program in 2006 that varies the cost by time of day, ranging from $1.33 to $2.67. In 2007, a public referendum to make the congestion pricing fee permanent easily passed.

Singapore might be the least relevant to current congestion pricing discussions because it’s had some form in effect since 1975. Vehicles are charged $2 per crossing.

Does It Work?
In short, it can, but it depends on what the goal is for that particular city.

Congestion pricing works at reducing traffic and raising some amount of revenue (ie; not costing more to implement than it brings in). But the degree of its success depends on what the goals politicians—and the general public—want to achieve and the specifics of how they plan to do it.

In London, congestion immediately reduced by 25 percent and vehicle speeds increased 30 percent within the cordon zone, according to a 2008 Federal Highway Administration study of various congestion pricing schemes. CO2 emissions dropped 20 percent. But the city only collected $98 million in revenue the first year despite setting a target of double that.

In the first 14 years of congestion pricing, London received a net revenue of £1.3 billion (roughly $2.17 billion at the average daily exchange rate during that time). Notably, taxis and for-hire vehicles are exempt from the congestion charge in London. With Uber’s rise, as you might guess, this resulted in some congestion returning to the cordon area.
Stockholm saw similar gains, with a 25 percent increase in vehicle speeds and a 25 percent reduction in congestion. The program currently yields approximately $100 million per year in revenues.

But… Why?
The idea behind congestion pricing is that road space is currently too cheap. For every driver on the road, the city as a whole incurs costs in the form of more traffic, pollution, and so on. It’s a classic case of what economists call a negative externality. The idea is that right now, transportation options in New York are wildly out of balance. Some bridges cost upwards of $15 to enter the city, others cost nothing, and there’s no real rhyme or reason why other than historical bullshit. Congestion pricing will help to even things out.

Take Manhattan, for example. It’s one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world, yet someone can drive from Brooklyn into Manhattan for free. As one prominent congestion pricing researcher found in 2009, “Driving a car into Manhattan on a weekday causes about $160 of negative externalities to everybody else.” This is why it’s called congestion pricing, because it’s about making drivers pay something approaching the actual cost of the road space they’re utilizing.

In turn, that money can go towards making more efficient forms of transportation better, something desperately needed in a city like New York, which is why Cuomo suddenly decided congestion pricing’s time had come in 2017 despite aggravating gridlock being a fixture of our fair city for decades.

I’m A Driver. I Don’t Want to Pay More For Driving Into the City. I Should Oppose Congestion Pricing, Right?
I’m not going to tell you what to think on this, but I will urge you to resist the reflexivity of “why should I pay for something I currently get for free (or, at least, less)” logic. Hear me out.

Driving in Manhattan is an objectively terrible experience. It’s not so bad if you do it in the dead of night when traffic is much lighter, but in general, it’s not what you picture when you imagine great driving. Ever.

New York City’s Department of Transportation reported average vehicle speeds in the CBD have fallen from 9.1 mph in 2010 to 7.2 mph in 2016, the latest year for which data is available. The Midtown Core, a part of Manhattan within the CBD, is even worse, with vehicle speeds as low as 5 mph.

As noted above, one of the key benefits of congestion pricing is that there are fewer vehicles on the road. Therefore, traffic moves faster. Those who do drive should welcome this change, because when they have to (or want to) drive into Manhattan, they will get to where they’re going more quickly.

What About the People Who Can’t Afford the Fee?
There is very little data to support the argument made by some of its opponents that a large number of low income New Yorkers would be subject to the congestion pricing fee on a regular basis. In fact, proponents say most low-income New Yorkers would benefit from it.

A study by the Community Service Society found just four percent of outer borough residents commute into the CBD by private vehicle, and only two percent of the working poor would be regularly subject to the charge. In contrast, 56 percent of outer borough residents use public transportation to regularly commute into the CBD, which would benefit from the revenue collected and faster bus speeds. The Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a regional transportation advocacy group, likewise found that each state legislature district has, at most, single-digit car commuters into the CBD.

The fact of the matter is, most New Yorkers rely on public transportation to get around and virtually any form of congestion pricing could, in theory, improve service.

OK, But This is New York. They’ll Screw It Up Somehow, Right?
Oh, hell yes. As mentioned above, the details are still being worked out in the state legislature, and by “details” I mean pretty much everything about who would be subject to the charge and who decides the fee, among other things.

The biggest potential for New York to screw this up is by making too many exceptions, or carve outs, for who is subject to the charge. One of the key issues with London’s congestion pricing, and one of the reasons why its impact has leveled off over time, is that it has a number of exemptions and discounts which blunt the impact the fee can have.

As noted above, taxis and for-hire vehicles are exempt from London’s fee, and New York for-hire drivers believe they should be exempt as well. Yet, it is precisely the proliferation of for-hire vehicles that have been the main driver of worsening traffic. To exempt them would be to exempt the main group responsible for the growing problem.
Similarly, New Jersey politicians are trying to negotiate carve outs for their constituents who commute into the city, even though it’s not clear why New York politicians would grant exemptions to a state that itself has chronically underfunded and mismanaged its own commuter rail service which goes to New York’s Penn Station.

New York Mayor Bill De Blasio has repeatedly voiced concern about drivers coming into the city for doctor’s appointments and other “hardship” exemptions. Again, there’s no evidence to suggest people coming into the city for medical appointments are more likely to drive than take public transportation or, for that matter, are disproportionately low income. Nor is he (or anyone else) proposing carve outs from subway fares for people going to the doctor’s office.

Carve outs are not inherently ridiculous, but the more carve outs there are, the less effective congestion pricing will be. Aside from collecting less revenue and having more cars on the road, it erodes at the idea that the charge applies to everyone. It would only reinforce other special interests in their belief that they, too, ought to be exempt. It makes the whole concept appear less fair.

But the issue to watch is why New York is finally passing congestion pricing in the first place. Lawmakers have been very explicit that the primary goal is to generate funds for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The MTA is an historically mismanaged and bloated bureaucracy with a $16.7 billion annual budget that is nevertheless projecting operating deficits of almost a billion dollars by 2022 if congestion pricing isn’t enacted (debt payment accounts for 16 percent of the MTA’s annual budget because the city and state have not given the MTA the money they’ve promised for mega-projects that have gone horrifically over budget, which forces the MTA to borrow the money instead). This comes a decade after the state passed a different slew of taxes to solve the MTA’s funding mess, which, spoiler alert, didn’t solve the MTA’s funding mess.

Will Congestion Pricing Solve Traffic Problems in Cities?
Congestion pricing can be an effective way for cities to tackle multiple problems with one policy, but it is not a panacea for any one problem. At its best, it’s a balanced policy that, in conjunction with other measures like pedestrianizing more streets and installing more bike and bus lanes, helps to not only discourage people from driving in dense urban areas but giving them more attractive alternatives.

Furthermore, some cities like Paris, Oslo, and Madrid have made impressive strides at reducing car usage without implementing any form of congestion pricing. Instead, they simply made parts of the city off-limits for most cars altogether. This didn’t raise any revenue, but it’s worth remembering that New York hopes to raise $1 billion a year through congestion pricing, less than the $1.5 billion a year in a .33 percent payroll tax levied on residents of the MTA region in 2009. There are always other, and more reliable, ways to raise taxes.

Which brings us to the final question about New York’s congestion pricing plan: what if it doesn’t raise enough money? Does that mean it succeeded? Or that it failed? If the congestion fee works too well as it did in London, the MTA will yet again be in another funding crisis.

In this way, New York is potentially setting congestion pricing up to fail. It will either fail softly by not deterring enough driving so as to get the traffic and environmental benefits—in which case it will simply look like another toll—or it will fail hard by deterring drivers too much and not generating enough money for the beleaguered MTA, leaving us right back where we are now.

Should Other U.S. Cities Consider Congestion Pricing?
Los Angeles and Portland officials have at least floated the idea of possibly considering something like congestion pricing. But it’s dangerous to assume congestion pricing will solve anything on its own. It must be part of a larger toolbox of policies that give people better alternatives for getting around.

The worst possible outcome for congestion pricing, in New York or elsewhere, is that everyone considers its implementation a job well done. Instead, it’s merely the first step.


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