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 Outdated infrastructure and faulty technology, as well as past Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) decisions regarding signals and safety policy, have brought the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In addition to delays, outdated and inaccessible infrastructure can wreak even more serious havoc in the lives of those with mobility impairments.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

 
 
 
 

Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.

 

It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).


Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.