Four Lessons From Our Year of Subway Hell

A historically awful twelve months underground may lay the groundwork for a better tomorrow


When I told my doctor last week that I’m a transit reporter, she asked what I thought of the incoming New York City Transit president, Andy Byford. I remarked how unusual it is that ordinary citizens such as herself are even aware of such hires within the MTA. She responded — I’m paraphrasing here — “Well, we have to be.”

Believe it or not, 2017 started well for the MTA. Three new stations on the Second Avenue line opened to the public, the first major expansion of the city’s subway in half a century. The project, despite being the most expensive per track mile in the world, was undoubtedly the MTA’s high point for the year. It was all downhill from there.

You know what happened next: catastrophe after catastrophe, hours-long commutes becoming the norm, broken trains, and an official “state of emergency.” It was the worst year for the city’s mass transit in decades. Although it seemed to collapse all at once, the collapse was years in the making. And there’s plenty of blame to go around.

In 2017, New Yorkers learned more about how the subway works — or doesn’t work — than ever before. In no other year could I have found readers for an article about the arcane details of the subway’s antiquated signal system. In no recent year has the subway been such a political talking point. Here are four things New Yorkers — even those who pay attention to mass transit for a living — learned this year.

1. It’s #CuomosMTA

On March 24, 2016, the Riders Alliance published a short video on YouTube entitled “Take Action: It’s #CuomosMTA.” The text on the video foreshadowed much of what was to come: Commutes by subway and bus were getting worse, and Governor Andrew Cuomo, not Mayor Bill de Blasio or anyone else, was the person responsible for the MTA. It ended by urging riders to tweet at Cuomo using the hashtag.

At first, the call to action didn’t get much traction. But as 2016 turned into 2017 and the subway completely melted down, Riders Alliance kept it up. Before long, frustrated commuters were using the newly installed cell and WiFi signals in subway stations to direct their ire at the governor himself. Thanks in part to the hashtag, the message was heard. A spate of media stories soon outlined who controls the subway. Even the New York Times published an explainer titled “Who Really Runs New York City’s Subway?”

In just the two months from May to July — the epicenter of the subway chaos — Cuomo’s favorability ratings, according to a Siena College poll, plummeted 19 points, a drop fully attributable to downstate voters. In the same poll, voters held Cuomo responsible for the MTA by a 52-33 percent margin over de Blasio.

A week after the poll made headlines across New York papers, Cuomo joined MTA chairman Joe Lhota in announcing an $836 million subway “action plan” to triage the failing system.

John Raskin of the Riders Alliance credits Cuomo’s dismal poll numbers and mounting public pressure for leading the governor to “the same conclusion that millions of transit riders came to, which is that the governor needs to lead our city out of this crisis, because any new revenue source has to be approved by Albany and the leadership on that had to come from the governor.”

2. Congestion Pricing Is Back

August 13 could go down as one of the most important days in city history. It was the day the New York Times announced Cuomo was putting congestion pricing back on the table. Somewhat famously in transit circles, he called congestion pricing an idea “whose time has come.”

“Clearly, everybody was surprised by the governor’s announcement in all of this,” congestion pricing expert Charles Komanoff tells the Voice. “Nobody saw that coming. No one. That [was] such a welcome surprise, obviously.”

Congestion pricing has the potential to correct many of the city’s transit ills. By charging drivers to enter a predetermined zone of Manhattan, traffic will be reduced and buses will move faster (which could direct some riders away from the overcrowded subways). But, perhaps most important, the revenue raised can be redirected back into transit improvements, solving many of the MTA’s budgetary woes.

This remains hypothetical for now, because Cuomo has not said much on congestion pricing since the August Times story. In October, he created a panel to study the issue. Is Cuomo willing to spend political capital to get congestion pricing passed in Albany, or is it something he has proposed simply to leave languishing in the legislature?

Still, the very fact that congestion pricing is back in mainstream policy conversations — after years of being limited to transit advocates pushing proposals such as MoveNY’s plan — is a win in itself. Dani Simons, vice president for strategic communications at Regional Plan Association, which has advocated for congestion pricing in one form or another since the 1990s, recalls her early days working for the Department of Transportation back in 2007 when then-mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to forward his own congestion pricing plan. One of her first jobs was to present the plan to community boards. “That meant explaining congestion pricing night after night and getting some rather heated feedback at times,” she says. The plan later died in the state legislature.

Over the past decade, Simons says, it has sometimes felt “like this is a good idea [whose] time will never come. But this year I learned that you can’t keep a good idea down. Especially when the transit system is in crisis.”

3. The Mayor Loves Cars

“De Blasio loves driving and drivers even more than we thought,” says Jon Orcutt, director of communications and advocacy at TransitCenter. Indeed, de Blasio has come out against congestion pricing, misleadingly calling it a regressive tax. Instead, he has proposed a so-called millionaires tax to raise funds for the MTA. Like congestion pricing, such a tax would have to be approved by Albany, and it lacks the support of the governor.

Ironically, a congestion charge would go a long way toward accomplishing de Blasio’s Vision Zero plan, which aims to eliminate traffic-related fatalities in the city by 2024. (As of November 30, there were 202 fatalities this year; there were 229 fatalities in 2016.) Fewer cars on the road would mean fewer accidents. So would more speed cameras, as would ticketing vehicles after their drivers run over cyclists, rather than ticketing other cyclists. Instead, de Blasio has issued an edict to crack down on e-bikes, primarily used by immigrant food delivery workers. The city doesn’t track e-bikes as their own vehicle class, so it has no evidence they’re dangerous, only the complaints of some Upper West Siders. To date, no one in New York City has been killed by an e-bike.

“In 2017, we see that vehicles [and] drivers still seem to come first when push comes to shove,” says Caroline Samponaro, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives. “I think we’ve learned more and more as we’ve worked on Vision Zero that it’s a basic equity issue: We’re still planning streets predominantly for drivers, yet a majority of New Yorkers don’t drive and never will.”

Komanoff thinks de Blasio is isolating himself politically with his anti-congestion pricing stance: “He is close to a lone wolf in his argument that congestion pricing is regressive. And I think he’s going to be paying a political price for that.”

4. NYC’s Transit Movement Is Gaining Strength

“I’m just thunderstruck by the spirit of working together, of collaborating, of caring about the process and the result and not the credit,” Komanoff gushes of the movement that has grown up around fixing city transit. “The outcomes are so much better, and it really makes me and everybody else want to give everything we have to this movement.”

Komanoff recently framed a protest poster he saw in the subway, designed to look like a service advisory for the F line but instead reading “F THIS NONSENSE.” In the space where the MTA typically recommends travel alternatives, it listed organizations to support.

The Riders Alliance’s Raskin agrees that the momentum is all upward. “I can’t think of a time when there’s been more public attention focused on the quality of our transit system,” he says. “I’m optimistic that the attention from the public will lead to accountability on the part of our elected leaders and, consequently, a real vision for fixing our transit system and enough money invested in it to make that possible.” Here’s hoping that history views 2017 as the subways’ low point.