What’s gone wrong with New York’s subway system – and how is MTA planning to fix it?

The New York Subway map. Mmmmm, maps. Image: Getty.

Though those living outside the city may not have noticed, New York’s subway system is broken. Outdated infrastructure and faulty technology, as well as past Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) decisions regarding signals and safety policy, have brought the famed public transportation system to a grinding halt.

It’s clear to both the authorities and the public that something needs to be done – and so, after years of ignoring the problems, the transit authority recently started scrambling to fix them. In 2018, the MTA announced its “Fast Forward” plan to update and improve the subway system over the next 10 years. For New Yorkers suffering in the city’s transportation crisis, those changes can’t come soon enough.

Riders of the New York subway system are likely to encounter a number of problems on their daily commute, the most obvious of which are delays. Monthly passenger hours lost grew by 45.3 percent between 2012 and 2017: such delays can cause New Yorkers to be late for work, contributing to economic costs and frustrations for both businesses and employees.

Many factors contribute to the New York subway system’s city-stalling delays. Old and faulty signals cause train operators to slow down excessively for fear of speeding penalties, which means trains don’t always operate at their highest safe capacity. Increased safety precautions about running trains around construction work delays trains further, and means fewer trains can run per hour. All of these issues are avoidable – but only by installing new signals and performing track maintenance at night. No wonder New Yorkers are impatient for the MTA to implement fixes.

In addition to delays, outdated and inaccessible infrastructure can wreak even more serious havoc in the lives of those with mobility impairments. The majority of New York subway stations still lack basic components of accessibility, like elevators. A lack of accessibility can prevent the mobility-impaired, injured, elderly and parents of young children from using the subway. Subsequently, the city misses out on the economic and social contribution these segments of the population could make. Furthermore, the lives of New Yorkers prevented from using the subway system are disrupted in a huge way: getting around the city is hard enough without having to worry about whether you’ll be able to get back to street level at the next stop. 

The subway system’s poor infrastructure affects everyone. Delays, safety and accessibility concerns, even discomfort caused by crowding and dangerous lack of air conditioning – all drive New Yorkers out of the underground and onto the streets. If these problems aren’t addressed, people may begin to choose alternative modes of transportation, including some still undergoing testing.


The fix

But fixing the subway system has proven to be a complicated, because there isn’t one single cause of its problems. In fact, the former president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation said, “The whole way we run things is broken.”

He was referring to the long-term neglect of the subway’s infrastructure as a whole. Large and small problems at every level have combined over the years to add up to enormous dysfunction.

In the past, the MTA has blamed over-crowding and aging technology for the system’s problems. While these factors can certainly make an impact, other cities have shown they can and should be overcome.

The New York City subway system and the London Underground both depend on ageing architecture – but where updates and innovations are concerned, London has excelled where New York has lagged behind. To a New Yorker, the London Underground seems noticeably safer, faster and more efficiently maintained.

As the MTA makes plans to fix New York’s broken subway system, it’s looking to other cities for pointers. Some of the updates proposed in the MTA’s “Fast Forward” plan – such as a tap-and-go payment system – have already been successfully implemented elsewhere.

In addition to the updated payment system, the MTA plans to make changes to all levels of the subway system. It’s planning to install updated communications-based train control (CBTC) signals that will allow trains to run closer together, allowing for an increase in frequency. It’s also promised to replace outdated cars, upgrade underlying infrastructure including power systems, and work towards repairing and improving stations – though it is unclear if upgrades to stations will include accessibility improvements.

Perhaps the most important part of MTA plan is to embrace pro-active maintenance. By fixing potential problems early, instead of leaving them to fester, the MTA will avoid future transportation crises like this one.

Though the MTA’s plan for improving the subway system isn’t perfect and will take at least 10 years to complete, it is a step in the right direction. And hopefully, as the MTA works to improve public transportation, New York’s subway system will become the shining beacon of efficiency that it was meant to be when first envisioned. But for now, if you’re planning on visiting New York, you might want to think about taking the bus.

 
 
 
 

Here’s a fantasy metro network for Birmingham & the West Midlands

Birmingham New Street. Image: Getty.

Another reader writes in with their fantasy transport plans for their city. This week, we’re off to Birmingham…

I’ve read with interest CityMetric’s previous discussion on Birmingham’s poor commuter service frequency and desire for a “Crossrail” (here and here). So I thought I’d get involved, but from a different angle.

There’s a whole range of local issues to throw into the mix before getting the fantasy metro crayons out. Birmingham New Street is shooting up the passenger usage rankings, but sadly its performance isn’t, with nearly half of trains in the evening rush hour between 5pm and 8pm five minutes or more late or even cancelled. This makes connecting through New Street a hit and, mainly, miss affair, which anyone who values their commuting sanity will avoid completely. No wonder us Brummies drive everywhere.


There are seven local station reopening on the cards, which have been given a helping hand by a pro-rail mayor. But while these are super on their own, each one alone struggles to get enough traffic to justify a frequent service (which is key for commuters); or the wider investment needed elsewhere to free up more timetable slots, which is why the forgotten cousin of freight gets pushed even deeper into the night, in turn giving engineering work nowhere to go at all.

Suburban rail is the less exciting cousin of cross country rail. But at present there’s nobody to “mind the gap” between regional cross-country focussed rail strategy , and the bus/tram orientated planning of individual councils. (Incidentally, the next Midland Metro extension, from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill, is expected to cost £450m for just 11km of tram. Ouch.)

So given all that, I decided to go down a less glamorous angle than a Birmingham Crossrail, and design a Birmingham  & Black Country Overground. Like the London Overground, I’ve tried to join up what we’ve already got into a more coherent service and make a distinct “line” out of it.

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With our industrial heritage there are a selection of old alignments to run down, which would bring a suburban service right into the heart of the communities it needs to serve, rather than creating a whole string of “park & rides” on the periphery. Throw in another 24km of completely new line to close up the gaps and I’ve run a complete ring of railway all the way around Birmingham and the Black Country, joining up with HS2 & the airport for good measure – without too much carnage by the way of development to work around/through/over/under.

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While going around with a big circle on the outside, I found a smaller circle inside the city where the tracks already exist, and by re-creating a number of old stations I managed to get within 800m of two major hospitals. The route also runs right under the Birmingham Arena (formerly the NIA), fixing the stunning late 1980s planning error of building a 16,000 capacity arena right in the heart of a city centre, over the railway line, but without a station. (It does have two big car parks instead: lovely at 10pm when a concert kicks out, gridlocks really nicely.)

From that redraw the local network map and ended up with...

Click to expand. 

Compare this with the current broadly hub-and-spoke network, and suddenly you’ve opened up a lot more local journey possibilities which you’d have otherwise have had to go through New Street to make. (Or, in reality, drive.) Yours for a mere snip at £3bn.

If you want to read more, there are detailed plans and discussion here (signup required).