How Governor Cuomo Can Fix the Subways

With commuters fuming from increasingly delayed and overcrowded trains, the MTA announced a $20 million plan for short-term actions to fix the subways last week. The actions are welcome and a good first step, but fixing the underlying system in a comprehensive way is going to take much more money and attention from the very top.

Governor Cuomo, who controls the MTA, must lead the charge.

As the public dialogue continues, RPA offers this proposal for how the Governor can fix the subways, with seven near-term and long-term strategies.

Immediately start better communication with riders.
The MTA should eliminate unnecessary announcements (e.g. track litter, “if you see something, say something”) and provide clear and timely information to commuters, using best practices such as those used by LondonLos AngelesDenver and Montreal. Better communication, from clean and user-friendly websites to informative station announcements and signage, can go a long way toward improving the customer experience.

Provide better transit alternatives. 
Better transit alternatives would help to alleviate overcrowded subways and make delays or disruptions more manageable. The MTA should improve the reliability of New York City’s bus system. The bus system is comprehensive and reaches farther than the subways, but ridership is declining because buses are slow, infrequent and unreliable. Good places to start to improve this system include speeding up implementation of “tap-and-go” fare payments on buses to allow all-door boarding and working with New York City Department of Transportation (who controls the streets) to promote street design that prioritizes buses. A potentially longer term idea is to give NYC DOT more control of the bus system, since the city controls the streets that the buses run on.

The governor could also do more with the commuter rail service in the city. Many lines are already packed at rush hours but there is often capacity during evening hours and on weekends when the subways are often the most disrupted. More frequent off-peak commuter rail service in the city and a reduced rail fare could provide better transit alternatives for neighborhoods like Flushing, Jamaica and East New York.

Do the L train project right.
Imagine the L train with no overcrowding, trains every 2 minutes, new elevators that work at every station in Manhattan and redesigned stations. The full closure of the L subway for 15 months means the MTA has the perfect opportunity to transform the L into a modern subway. But getting there requires a more ambitious capital project than the one currently planned, which would only improve a few stations and allow limited service upgrades. Specifically, RPA has asked the agency for station upgrades at all the closed stations and track extensions at 8th Avenue that would eliminate the need for trains to crawl into the station. These improvements could lay the foundation for a radical series of modernizations that could once again make New York a leader in public transit. On the other hand, reopening the line and leaving commuters with the same overcrowding will only further erode public trust in the MTA’s ability to deliver a modern and reliable system.

Speed up the CBTC timeline.
Under current plans, it will take the MTA at least 50 years to deliver communications-based train control (CBTC), a modern subway signal system, to come to the subways. This system is key to increasing service because it lets trains run closer together. The current timeline is woefully unacceptable and will put the system even further behind.

Target high-ridership and overcrowded stations for “right-sizing.”
At busy stations, this means adding entrances, widening platforms (wherever possible) and improving vertical circulation (e.g. guarantee working elevators and escalators). These construction projects should be matched with operational improvements, like more platform controllers and station personnel, to manage congestion.

Fix bottlenecks in the system
The New York City subway has slow zones, geometry issues and inefficient terminals. All of these bottlenecks place limits on capacity and service reliability. Some are easier to fix because they require a change in how the system operates versus changes to track or stations. For example, Nostrand Avenue Junction is a major bottleneck on the #2, 3, 4, and 5 that was not designed for the way it’s operating today which enables east and west one-seat rides for both branches. The junction could either be reconstructed to correct the physical conflicts (at great expense) or enact service changes to eliminate the conflict.

Implement the Move NY or similar tolling plan.
Subway service is underfunded and riders are seeing the result of deferred maintenance and underinvestment. Public transportation needs an influx of new revenue. The most obvious option is an equitable tolling package that includes higher tolls on the busiest streets, and lower tolls on crossings less traveled. The Governor should immediately announce his commitment to this idea and then work with the state Legislature this year to approve a plan.

The condition of our subways is the result of chronic under-funding going back decades, even as ridership has surged in the last 20 years. These recommendations will take some time and additional funding to implement, but the benefits will be long-lasting for future generations of New Yorkers.