Tuesday, December 22, 2009

In Which . . . I Try to Defend the MTA (or at least the Subway)

As has been well-chronicled here, the MTA is absolutely terrible. The subway is in a perpetual state of construction, trains are over-crowded, and the MTA announces critical budget shortfalls that require service cuts and fare hikes about as often as the Mets let us down.

But after reading LJT's post about how awful the MTA is (and they really are), I have to wonder if maybe the system is just so big, and so over-utilized that they have no choice but to just band-aid over problems and keep the trains running as best they can. Here's the case:

It's Called the "Big" Apple for a Reason

The New York City subway system is the biggest in the country by every possible measure. But even that statement fails to convey the magnitude of this operation by comparison to others. A few statistics:

1. The New York City subway system moves 7,736,900 riders per day. That is more than double the total amount moved by the next 15 largest subway systems in the country (and two of those 15 - the Staten Island Rail and the PATH - are also in the New York metro area).

2. The New York City subway system has 468 stations. The next largest? Chicago, with 144, and then DC with a whopping 86.

3. The New York City subway system offers 229 miles of service. No other US city has half that much. The closest are DC, Chicago and San Francisco, with 106, 107 and 104 respectively.

The subway is enormous. It takes almost 8 million people across a distance equal to the trip from here to Boston every day and stops at almost 500 stations along the way. Amtrak has a mere fraction of the riders and a fraction of the stations, but they still charge me $150 to go to Delaware for the day. The logistics alone are mind-boggling.

I just wonder if maybe the sheer size of the system makes it impossible to stay within budget, and service the population with anything remotely resembling a reliable, clean, comfortable and pleasant system. Imagine trying to operate Newark, LaGuardia and Kennedy airports in tunnels underneath Manhattan.

I'm just sayin' it's big, man

The City Never Sleeps

Here's the next problem: unlike it's "competitors" in Boston, San Franciso, DC, and elsewhere, the subway never closes. It is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. If you want to take a train from Coney Island in Brooklyn to Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx at 3:00 in the morning on Christmas, some dude will pull a train into the station and give you a lift. For $2.25.

Keeping the subway open all night is great (as anyone who has ever spent all of their money down in the west village with LJT can attest), but it has two enormous drawbacks for the average rider. First, you cannot do maintenance and improvement work when the subway is closed, because it is never closed. Of course, nights and weekends are still the best time to do construction, but it moves at a snail's pace compared to those systems that shut down for four, six or eight hours per night, because our guys have to let trains pass every 5-15 minutes. Second, it costs a tremendous amount more, by comparison, to operate a subway for 24 hours a day than it would to do so for 16, 18 or 20 hours a day. I couldn't find estimates on the web, but I have to assume that closing the subway for even four hours a night would save tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars per year, and keep fares in check for the next decade. But can you imagine? Anyone who lives in New York and rides the subway would scoff at the idea of it closing, even for just a few hours per night. Thousands of people would instantly have no way of getting to or from work, school, and home.

That and a Nickel, Dollar, Dollar-Fifty, Two Dollars, Two Dollars and Twenty-Five Cents Will Get You on the Subway

In June, the subway fare increased by about 12% to $2.25 for a single ride. That is a lot of money to take one ride on the subway. But there are loads of mitigating factors that make this seem somewhat reasonable.

1. The fare had not increased since 2003, a period of more than six years.

2. At some point after the introduction of the MetroCard in the late 1990s, riders had the opportunity of purchasing 30-day unlimited ride cards. For anyone who commutes to and from work 20 or more times in a 30-day period, this brings the actual fare down below the $2.25 per ride. And for those of us who commute to and from work, use the subway on the weekends, loan the card to Mrs. Side Bar when she needs to use it . . . (even though she never remembers to put it back in my fucking wallet when she is done so that I have to buy one of those paper-thin single ride things on Monday morning and miss the goddamn train that is pulling in just as I get . . .oh, what, sorry) . . . and pay for our MetroCards with pre-tax dollars, we are probably paying closer to the $1.50 per ride that was charged from November of 1995 until May of 2003.

3. And that's another thing. The increases in fares over the past few years (from $1.50 in 2003 to $2.25 today) seem drastic (some might even say 50%). But in reality those fare increases are somewhat delinquent (we were at $1.50 for eight years), and have stayed somewhat constant relative to inflation since the 1970s. See chart.


4. As I mentioned above, the New York City subway has 229 miles of service. So if you want to take that ride from Coney Island to Van Cortland Park (a 30-mile, 45-minute drive) at 3:00 a.m., it still costs only $2.25. Even though it costs the same amount to take the 1 train just one stop from my apartment to Open Bar's place (fuck off, it was cold). By contrast, cities like DC and San Francisco have instituted systems that charge based on the distance of your trip. You pay more to travel more. That seems fair to me, but here's the problem with introducing that in New York: by and large, people who live near and use the subway in the outer boroughs need to travel longer distances. But they might not be the ones who can afford to bear the disproportionate cost of the trip. That guy who lives in the Bronx and needs to take that trip to Brooklyn at 3:00 in the morning might not be able to swing $5.45 or whatever per trip. So those of us living and working in Manhattan end up subsidizing his use of the system to some extent.

So yes, $2.25 is a lot of money, but not everyone pays quite that much (except tourists, and fuck them, right?), and relative to the size of the system and the gradual rate of fare increases over the past 30 years, this fare seems to be in the neighborhood of reasonable.

The Subway is Fast as Shit

It's considered a sacred duty of every MTA rider to bitch and moan about the subway. I always do my part. "The C train is never on time." "The 4 is so fucking crowded." "The guy in the token booth is a dick." (yeah, we still call them token booths). But here is a little secret that we all know . . . I shouldn't even be telling you this, but here goes: the subway is, much more often than not, the absolutely best way to get around New York. You can get from Columbia to Penn Station in less than 15 minutes. You can get from the Cloisters to Times Square in 20. And you can get from Spanish Harlem to Wall Street in less than 30. The subway is fast. Yes it is crowded, yes it is dirty (sometimes), and yes the stations could use a major, major face lift. But 9 times out of 10 it is faster, cheaper (and probably safer) than a taxi.

LJT is definitely right that the MTA comes across in the popular media as a bunch of clowns who are either corrupt or clueless. But maybe they just need a better PR firm. The New York City subway is huge, old, and fantastically over-utilized. But it has been the cheapest and quickest way of getting around town for the majority of its existence. Given the demands on the system, I am not sure how realistic it is to expect too much more.


The Notorious LJT said...

waa waa waa, it's big, it's expensive, it's 24 hours. it's all of those things year after year. how can you be so wildly off budget every. single. year?

every year!

get a fucking accounting department for the love of god!

what their reasoning is, really, is that the state shortchanges them on the grants or whatever and they are always shocked...shocked! at it. fucking pick up a goddamn phone and be in contacts you have some idea what's coming.

payroll taxes are down, shit who would have seen that coming!!

lots of moving parts? yes. complicated? yes. difficult. yes. but it is all those things every year. do a fucking budget, it can't be more complicated than running like fucking ibm or toyota or some shit or any other big company and they do budgets that are accurate.

The Notorious LJT said...

i mean, and on top of that, they wanted to sell the train yards to woody johnson at a discount. wtf?

Side Bar said...

you just don't understand. probably because you live in New Jersey.

The Notorious LJT said...

i think you're wrong. you'll agree with me when you have time to contemplate while you're stuck in traffic on the 186 in weehawken.

Side Bar said...

*shudders violently*

ChuckJerry said...

This is anti-proletariat, but they should just raise the fare to $3.00 and stop bitching about budget deficits.

The Straphangers want low fares and great service and at some point somethings got to give. $3.00 to get where you want to go is still a bargain. If you want to take a cab somewhere, you got to pay $3.00 just to open the door.

Walt Clyde Frazier said...

For what it's worth... from a non-NYC person's perspective, I ride the subways very sporadically, and when I do I'm amazed by the convenience of the whole set-up. I think the $3-and-keep-it-there-for-a-while idea seems fair and feasible.

WV: "miledisc"