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 Outdated infrastructure and faulty technology, as well as past Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) decisions regarding signals and safety policy, have brought the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In addition to delays, outdated and inaccessible infrastructure can wreak even more serious havoc in the lives of those with mobility impairments.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.

 
 
 
 

Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.


The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.