The Subway That Warps Space and Time

New York’s troubled system makes trips longer and days shorter. Who can fix it?

Morning commuters board a train in a crowded subway station in New York on May 11, 2016.

Morning commuters board a train in a crowded subway station in New York on May 11, 2016.

Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Imagine getting to work every day with a map that changed every time you looked at it.

This is not some whimsy from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. It’s the daily predicament of the riders who make more than 5.6 million trips every weekday on the sputtering New York City subway, the busiest transit system in the Western Hemisphere. No one in Invisible Cities has to get to a doctor’s appointment.

It’s not just that the map literally changes, though that happens too: Weekend service is so different from what’s printed on paper that a blogger makes specialized weekend maps. On weekdays, trains occasionally adopt the freewheeling mien of the flaneur. Take my A train, which ran local on Monday morning without explanation. Or my colleague’s Q train, which got halfway to Manhattan before unexpectedly deciding to return to Coney Island last Thursday. Or read Rebecca Fishbein’s tragicomedy about a Monday morning Q train that lost its way, twice, between Brooklyn and Manhattan.

More important, the mental map that New Yorkers use to get around shows geography as a function of time. Just as travel apps for traffic and transit convert miles to minutes, urbanites think of their cities in terms of travel times, not absolute distance.   

If you take the subway regularly, you’re probably familiar how the breakdowns stretch the city and shrink the day. Not in decades has commuting on the subway felt as fraught as it has in recent months. As the system lurches between little crises, no politician is willing to claim responsibility for its control.

A lack of direct popular control over the subway was supposed to save it. What’s gone wrong?

New York City subway service isn’t consistently bad. It isn’t consistently anything. It mixes days of normalcy with surprise disasters whose disruptive effect is something like an air-raid drill, leaving hundreds of thousands of people stranded underground, while their kids wait at schools, their office chairs sit empty, and their shifts begin. If, as former New Jersey Transportation Commissioner Jack Lettiere once put it, transportation is “the game board upon which the economy is played,” New York City is the demented spinoff of Settlers of Catan. The board changes every day, with a debilitating effect on businesses, birthday parties, and everything in between.

That delays have tripled in four years, that subway ridership is declining, that bus ridership is plummeting—these things should alarm Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who runs the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and bears ultimate responsibility for its failings, despite his protests otherwise.

Cuomo, who is widely thought to be preparing a 2020 run for president, has had a love-hate relationship with the MTA. He often claims credit for the authority’s capital projects, such as initiatives to provide countdown clocks, new buses, or a third track on the Long Island Rail Road. He was foreman for a month on the Second Avenue Subway and threw a party to celebrate its launch. As a storm bore down on New York in the winter of 2015, the governor decided to shut down the subway for snowfall for the first time in its 111-year history—without first talking to the mayor.

But when it comes to service problems, the governor has shirked his duties. His attitude toward these everyday crises has been dismissive, especially compared with his advocacy for the new Gateway tunnel between New York and New Jersey. He incarnates America’s penchant for ribbons over nuts and bolts, its compulsion to build rather than repair.

Capital improvements are sexy; maintenance isn’t. But the governor underestimates the extent to which weekly meltdowns are adding up to something that threatens the vitality of the subway, and with it, the city’s desirability as a place to live and do business.

There is only one option left to impress this issue on the reluctant governor and layabout mayor: Make them ride the subway. Cuomo’s flacks wouldn’t tell the New York Times the last time he took the train. (Was it at the New Year’s opening of the Second Avenue subway? Yes, I know he works in Albany—but he lives in Westchester and could spend a week commuting to the MTA offices to see what’s up.) De Blasio, though he lives just blocks from that newly opened spur, is too busy driving 10 miles to go to the YMCA in Brooklyn. Not surprisingly, the mayor believes that street traffic is the more serious issue. These men must become straphangers for a week.

If they were, they would realize that New York’s reliability problem is worse than it looks on paper. The 75-minute daily commute here is the nation’s longest by more than 15 minutes, which is bad. But studies of transit behavior show that unreliable service bothers people more than increased travel time. In California, the Transportation Research Board found that riders felt extra time spent commuting was more than twice as valuable as regular travel time. A TransitCenter survey from last year showed that travelers would rather wait longer between transit arrivals than spend more time in transit.

This makes sense. If I knew it would take me 120 minutes to go five miles on the subway, as it did during the great subway logjam of April 21, I would leave the house earlier. I would take a cab. I would invest in a more comfortable desk chair and work from home. I would ride a bike to work. (Actually, I do that now, and there are never any delays.) It’s the unpredictability of service—and the MTA’s stubborn reluctance to convey what is actually happening, so that one might make other plans—that drives people crazy. And after it drives them crazy, it drives them to Los Angeles.

Last Monday, the MTA announced a six-point plan to address delays. “Decades of underinvestment … has led to a system that is excessively vulnerable to failures,” the statement read. (Interestingly, New York has been governed by a Cuomo for 18 of the past 35 years.) The order includes some good news, like the imminent arrival of newer subway cars and deployments of teams to handle broken signals and sick passengers, two major causes of delays. It also appears to have been devised rather quickly—an MTA board member found out about it from the press—and as such, does not account for the subway’s two biggest problems: its ancient signal system and its insanely high construction costs.

Those two things are interrelated and together account for virtually every other problem with the subway. Signals break, hinder the deployment of countdown clocks and driverless trains, and prevent trains from running closer together. High costs impede the development of 20th-century signal technology and other capital improvements, including region-altering projects like the Triboro RX and low-hanging fruit like reopening closed subway entrances. (Read Alon Levy’s excellent coverage of the cost issue and weep.) As long as the MTA fails to address these issues, its troubles will continue.

In a great story about the museum-quality signals that guide millions beneath this archipelago city every day, Times transportation reporter Emma Fitzsimmons notes that “at the current pace, transforming every subway line could take half a century and cost $20 billion.” That’s a long time to get the trains to run on time.

The bright side is that the MTA, which turns 50 next year, was built for moments like this. The same electoral insulation that allows the mayor and governor to squabble over who is at fault should enable the transit authority to make tough calls, like the (correct) decision to shut down the L train for a full year to complete essential maintenance. If that were left up to local politicians, you can bet it would never have happened. Instead, the authority is ripping off the Band-Aid.

Can the MTA reform itself? Could it repair its own spending problems, push the city and state to toll the East River bridges for transit improvements, or take a less piecemeal approach to maintenance, possibly at the cost of all-night service? If not, then it’s time for Cuomo to do something radical about the MTA. He can start by riding the subway.