THE COMMUTE: About a week before Hurricane Sandy, I got a delightful surprise in the form of an email from a senior MTA executive who worked at the Chicago Transit Authority earlier in his career complimenting me on my series, “A Tale of Two Cities: Chicago and New York.” [Part 1, Part 2]. He also corrected my erroneous hypothesis that, at one time, the Loop had more than two tracks. It appears that there were provisions for additional tracks, but they were never constructed.
Sometimes when you criticize, complain, or try to make suggestions, you get the impression that no one is listening, especially when facing a large bureaucracy. It is easy to forget that these bureaucracies are not objects, but human beings.
Anyway, this is what the email stated:
As a native Chicagoan and someone who was born there and spent (the first quarter century) of my life there I appreciated your two articles. Many of your observations and comments were “spot on” as the Brits would say. It is a much smaller and overall cleaner system that is quite effective and sound from an operations viewpoint. Their level of coordination between bus and rail is far greater and more effective than here, but their ridership can support such while it is arguable that the same could be done here.
On a point of fact, the Loop itself never had any more than two tracks at any time during its existence. However, for the elevated tracks leading to the Loop there are still and were in the past many locations with three or four tracks.
There were/are exceptionally few true express services and the ones still operating that way today have been effectively diluted with the addition of many additional stops along the way.
Still, after all of its issues it is still a remarkable system and one that has significantly high transportation utility and value.
The MTA’s Greatest Failure
I am not quite sure what he means that it is arguable whether our ridership can support better coordination between bus and rail. We certainly have enough passengers transferring between the two to warrant better coordination. Just missing a connection by a second or two and having to wait an extra 10 or 20 minutes is probably among the most frustrating experiences, commuters have. Why can’t we have better coordination? Would that not encourage more use of mass transit?
I remember in my days at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning, my transportation professor discussing placing signals on the outside of major subway station transfer points alerting bus drivers when a train is arriving so they could hold the bus a minute or two during off-peak hours so that a dozen or more passengers could make a connection. That was three years after we put a man on the moon. Hasn’t technology advanced in the past 40 years enough to permit that type of better coordination? Yet we still do not have it.
Why can’t we have borough bus maps at least at major bus shelters that show subway connections so that people become familiar with more than the one or two bus routes they use every day and get in the habit of using buses and trains for unfamiliar trips? (Chicago has complete system maps at every bus shelter.) Wouldn’t more tourists use mass transit instead of hopping into a cab if they were more familiar with the system?
Why can’t we rationalize Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road fares for trips within the city limits so it doesn’t cost more than an express bus, especially at times when there is excess capacity? Could we not reduce some express bus service, especially in Queens, during the off-peak, which is so expensive to provide?
We have made some great advances in our transit system since the MTA has taken over operation (air-conditioned buses and trains, new railroad cars, better signage, improved condition of many subway stations including some that are accessible to all riders, improved subway reliability, etc.). We also have many bus shelters, something that was virtually unheard of 40 years ago.
However, the reason the MTA was created — in addition to getting Robert Moses removed from power — was to better coordinate all forms of transportation by placing all power in one central entity. The only parts of our transportation system the MTA does not control are the highways and roadways, which are under the jurisdiction of the State and City Department of Transportation. I regard not improving transportation between the various modes of travel the MTA’s greatest failure.
Second would be their inability to take us suggestions from the public seriously and fairly evaluating them. Sometimes it appears that the MTA looks for any excuse to immediately dismiss new ideas they did not think of themselves. Not only do they not listen to the public, except when there is a massive outcry, middle and upper management in some departments are even reluctant to accept new ideas from their own employees. There is an NYCT Employee Suggestion Program, which rewards employees who make suggestions that save the MTA money. However, only a very small percentage of ideas are accepted.
Proof that this program is not taken very seriously by upper management is that it is headed by a low level employee who has no power to question any department’s rejection of an idea. This may just be due to the arrogance of the individuals evaluating suggestions. After all, how could someone from another department know more than us?
It was just for that reason that, when I was in the Central Electronics Shop, my boss asked me to head a separate departmental employee suggestion program in addition to the NYCT program. It took as long as three years for NYCT to evaluate some suggestions. Millions of dollars are saved annually from accepted suggestions. Imagine how much more could be saved if the suggestions were evaluated more quickly and more fairly.
While there have been many advances in our transportation system and we have emerged from our transportation depression of the 1980s, better coordination between the various modes of travel has been neglected for far too long. Some parking spaces near major subway stations in outlying areas should be designated for kiss and ride where someone can legally wait for five or ten minutes to pick up passengers without having to get out and walk a half block to pay a Muni Meter.
The city could also do a lot more to promote park and ride by expanding facilities rather than looking to sell off municipal parking lots for more development, which creates even more congestion. A so-called park and ride lot in Sheepshead Bay, consisting of only 20 spaces, which are taken by 7:00 a.m., is a disgrace. Not providing an off-street bus terminal near Main Street in Flushing, as part of the city’s redevelopment of the municipal parking lot in such a congested area, is another disgrace. Why can’t buses be equipped with bike racks at least on routes that access recreation areas? Certainly a lot more can be done to improve intermodal coordination.
What do you think are the MTA’s greatest successes and failures? And what do you think the city could do more of to better coordinate all forms of transportation?
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).
Disclaimer: The above is an opinion column and may not represent the thoughts or position of Sheepshead Bites. Based upon their expertise in their respective fields, our columnists are responsible for fact-checking their own work, and their submissions are edited only for length, grammar and clarity. If you would like to submit an opinion piece or become a regularly featured contributor, please e-mail nberke [at]sheepsheadbites [dot]com.