As the MTA constantly reminds us, there’s a fine line between incompetence and malice. Nowhere is this more evident than in the transit authority’s official statistics on subway performance.
On Sunday, the Daily News reported that last summer, MTA officials purposely inflated statistics on delays caused by power failure in an effort to pin as much of the ongoing subway catastrophe on Con Edison instead of, you know, the MTA. After senior subways performance analyst Kyle Kirschling informed NYC Transit chief of staff Naomi Renek that there had been approximately 8,000 power-related delays during the previous twelve-month period, Renek subsequently wrote that she was “looking for a higher delay number for power.” Long story short: They managed to bump that number up to a whopping 32,000 by changing the definition of “power-related” to be so wide-ranging it includes when power is intentionally cut off. (Incidentally, a board member asked at yesterday’s meeting why, if power failures were so important and numerous, they weren’t their own category of major incident causes on the MTA’s troublesome new subway dashboard. The question was never answered.)
More often, though, it appears that the MTA simply doesn’t know what’s causing delays. Take, for example, a moment from yesterday’s MTA board meeting, when a board member asked Peter Cafiero, the chief of operations planning for NYC Transit, what appeared to be a simple question: How does the MTA define “overcrowding” delays — the greatest cause of delays by their own statistics — on the subway? Cafiero offered a meandering reply with lots of technical mumbo jumbo, but never answered the question.
This type of statistical nebulousness is in line with the MTA’s other performance measurements. Until September, the agency produced no comprehensible statistics on subway performance, and the metrics it did report were difficult to understand and borderline meaningless for the average straphanger. Who cares, for example, if a train successfully arrives at its final stop within five minutes of its scheduled time if you have to wait eighteen minutes between trains?
The latest revelations about the cooking of the power delay books reveal how desperately Governor Andrew Cuomo’s MTA is to find a scapegoat for its problems. While absolutely nobody internalized Cuomo’s message that the subway was failing because of the power company, the agency’s attempt at an “overcrowding” narrative proved far more effective, as this message got a feature in the New York Times arguing the MTA’s point: There are too many people trying to take the subway, and that’s the root problem. The subway is a victim of its own success, you see.
Unfortunately for the MTA, overcrowding is often not the direct cause of delays, so much as more fundamental issues like antiquated signals that cannot properly space trains or run them more frequently as more modern systems can. New NYC Transit president Andy Byford clearly understands this: At yesterday’s board meeting, he chimed in after Cafiero’s waffling to emphasize the importance of distinguishing between genuine overcrowding due to increased dwell times and station crowding because trains are not running normally for other reasons.
All these different but equally damaging types of data manipulations — purposely fudging numbers versus collecting bad data by accident — combine to make New Yorkers distrust the MTA to inform us honestly about its functionality. Consider the most basic of questions: Is the subway getting better? The MTA and Cuomo have been arguing it is since September, but people who ride it find that hard to believe. As the transit authority invests hundreds of millions of dollars into triaging the failing subways, how will we know if this money is going to good use? What could the MTA possibly say that would make us trust it now?
One person who doesn’t have faith, at least not yet, is Andy Byford. Asked after the board meeting if he trusts the MTA data he received, Byford replied that it was “too early to form an opinion on that.” Meanwhile, at almost the exact same time, the E, F, M, and R trains were experiencing major delays from what the MTA reported was “an earlier Con Ed loss of power in the Queens area” on this unseasonably warm January day. Even if it’s true, nobody will believe it.