THE COMMUTE: The key to efficient and effective transit service is through properly matching service to demand. The MTA attempts to accomplish this through routine “traffic checks” where employees wearing orange vests sit alongside the bus drivers and count passengers getting on and off. Each bus route is usually monitored every few years with heavily utilized ones monitored more frequently. Exceptions are made for routes having special problems and those undergo more frequent checks. I’m not sure how subway traffic checks are performed, but I would imagine that they are conducted from the platforms.
There are also separate weekday, weekend and special lighter holiday bus schedules for Christmas, as well as school open and school closed schedules and even special summer schedules. But are these measures enough? They are not. There still needs to be further refinement in the bus schedules.
As reported by The Daily News, a very scientific study [PDF] recently delivered to the Transportation Research Board concluded that, for some routes, ridership was indeed lighter on Fridays; for others early afternoon schedules needed to be beefed up because many passengers left the office earlier in the day; for other routes, it did not matter. The study further concluded that the disparity is getting greater as technology is permitting more people to work at home and make their own work schedules. All things considered, the MTA could save $13 million annually by writing special Friday schedules instead of having a single weekday schedule and should reinvest those savings in the system, the authors concluded.
If any of this sounds familiar, it is because Last May I suggested that B1 service could be cut by a third on Fridays through lighter Friday schedules when Kingsborough Community College is only in session for half a day. I hinted that the MTA should investigate if similar savings could be made on other routes, with the monies saved used to beef up service at times when service is deficient. On the B1, that would be Mondays through Thursdays.
Last week, I once again discussed MTA arrogance, and how the MTA rarely listens to the public or even to its own employees, how innovation is not encouraged, but going with the flow is.
In the past I have criticized Operations Planning for perhaps being the most arrogant of all departments. They rarely listen to the public because they consider themselves the “experts” who can learn little from the average passenger. They have rejected more than 50 of my suggestions for bus routing improvements that I have made to them over the years. Cost was the reason most often stated for rejection, and sometimes reasons conflicted with one another. Additional cost was the sole reason for rejecting one simple change I recommended, which would have required an operating cost increase of a little more than $100 a day extra, not accounting for the increased ridership that would have resulted.
How Most MTA Changes Are Made
Changes are usually dictated from the top down. Trying to do it the other way and you are a like a salmon swimming upstream. I wouldn’t expect the MTA to accept my suggestion of separate Friday schedules based on a single survey of a few hours involving only one bus route. However, the study I cite today was co-authored by an MTA employee who I happen to know personally, Alla Reddy, because I worked with him in the early 1980s in the MTA department in charge of material distribution.
Not only has he worked in Operations Planning for more than 20 years and has had a top position there conducting traffic checks, he came to the same conclusion I did regarding the need for separate Friday schedules. They would provide more efficient and effective service and that would also save the MTA money. Instead of being eagerly willing to accept this recommendation, this is the official MTA response from MTA spokesman Charles Seaton, whom I also know, according to The Daily News:
“This was an intellectual exercise done in preparation for a paper delivered recently to a national transit research group and in no way represents the stated or future policies of MTA New York City Transit,” MTA spokesman Charles Seaton said.
Instead of embracing this study and rewarding the employee who co-authored it, it appears the MTA is summarily dismissing it, and the question is: Why? Seaton and Reddy are very decent people. The reason cannot be personal. It is because all policy changes must come from the top when someone in a high position even at Operations Planning cannot get a policy change accepted.
When I was in Car Equipment in the 1990s, an engineer recommended a change involving subway car batteries at a weekly staff meeting. The department head asked him what does he see when he looks in the mirror? The engineer was perplexed for an answer. The department head continued, “Do you see any writing on your forehead saying that you are the president?” When the engineer responded that he doesn’t, the department head told him, “Only the president sets policy, your job is to do only what you are told.” The following year, that department head was named “Manager of the Year.”
So what part of this research paper does the MTA have a problem with? It certainly cannot be with saving $13 million annually. They would welcome saving money especially when providing service that is not needed.
This Is The Problem
The final statement in the study states: “Opinions expressed are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect official policy or positions of MTA New York City Transit.” The report also acknowledges specific individuals who helped with the study, including the current director of Operations Planning, Peter Cafiero. So why wouldn’t the official MTA response be that they will take the study under advisement?
The answer is that it is the budget people who make the decisions within the MTA, not the planners. The budgeters have decided that a major way to get the MTA out of debt is to constantly reduce service and charge more for those services, ignoring the effects those measures would have on future ridership. Transportation planners know better, but planners are not in charge of making policy. Operations Planning is instructed to cut service, and cut is what they do.
Even the former chairman, Jay Walder, who was the only MTA chairman with an extensive knowledge of transit, was a budget person and not a planner — just as the current chairman is. The research paper concluded that the savings be reinvested into the system, something I have long advocated, and that is the reason why Seaton stated that this paper does not represent “future policies” of the MTA.
So is it MTA arrogance that is preventing the MTA from adopting a recommendation from one of its own planners, one with more than 20 years of experience in Operations Planning, someone intimately involved in their own traffic checking and data analysis? Or is the reason far more sinister? That the MTA’s one and only concern is to reduce costs, no matter the effect on ridership, no matter the inconvenience to its riders, no matter the increase in traffic congestion those cuts may cause because they have absolutely no intention to improve service. Service that would result in increased ridership but may come at a greater cost to them possibly increasing their deficit.
The MTA may in fact eventually accept the recommendation for separate Friday schedules, but only to save money. However, until the MTA comes to the realization that continuing to cut services without reinvesting those savings back into the system will only continue to harm the system, we are all doomed.
Chairman Joe Lhota has the opportunity to be a leader and make some real policy changes. Will he lead, or just continue to only emphasize the MTA’s bottom line as his predecessors have done? If the answer is the latter, perhaps now is the time to break up the MTA, and instead replace it with an entity that is responsive to needs of the public.
The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).