No other public transport system in the world has been afforded the same prominence and fame as the New York City subway. For just $2.75, you can travel from one side of the metropolis to the other. New York’s metro has run underneath the city since 1904, developing and shaping the city above it, undergirding it as one of the world’s most important financial and cultural centers.
New York’s grand and beloved trains have reached a critical juncture. In July of last year, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency for the subway, citing the move as a necessary step to “reverse the deteriorating state of our subways.”
A quick visual scan shows the increasing state of dilapidation and inefficiency: overcrowding, old trains, poorly announced maintenance times, rodents, trash, fires, electrical blackouts, and train derailments plague the subway. And most importantly, constant delays. As ridership steadily increases, the subway hasn’t been able to keep up with the city it serves. New York’s subway lags behind its contemporaries across the pond, like the train systems of London and Paris. And it would be downright impossible to compare it to that of the efficient and clean subways in cities like Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Seoul. When I asked several international students to compare their hometown metros to New York’s, they picked their respective hometowns’ without hesitation. As an international student myself, I find it difficult to disagree with them. My hometown, Bangkok, first opened a train network in 1999. Rarely have I experienced extreme delays or any other negative side effects in my comparably short time spent on the subway.
Admittedly, it would be difficult to compare New York to other rail networks. Despite boasting a daily ridership only half that of Tokyo, the subway boasts the most lines, the highest number of stations, and the most miles of track. And much to the surprise of many New Yorkers I spoke with, the subway is one of the only train systems in the world to ride 24/7. Still, the subway doesn’t hold up to serious scrutiny.
Perhaps the most egregious problem the subway faces is its financial failings. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), New York’s public transit governing body, has faltered in light of public spending cuts by state and city officials across party lines. The MTA has also become loaded with debt from borrowing and has accrued interest from Wall Street creditors. The creditors went to the city with a plan to give quick cash to the subway. However, this resulted in $5 billion in accrued interest debt that they wouldn’t have had to pay if the MTA never accepted the deal. And, it’s not just the way the city and state have treated the subways; indeed, the MTA itself has poorly appropriated their funds to keep the subway out of a state of disrepair. The organization spent $4.5 billion on building the Second Avenue subway, notably the most expensive subway line in the history of the world. The building methods and bidding system for subway contracts have admittedly driven up these costs, as each kilometer of the track was worth an estimated $1.7 billion. The city has also spent a great deal of money on updating stations, like the $1.4 billion used on renovating the Fulton Street station. Given the state of the system as a whole, these lavish expenses were clearly not vital. But it seems the subway has so many issues that the MTA is having trouble identifying those that are most dire. Still, some winners have clearly emerged.
The heart of the subway’s problems is outdated technology. Never mind the old-fashioned swipe system rarely used in other cities; the subway is controlled by an analog signaling system from the 1930s. The system exists to track trains, and it ensures that trains can run as frequently and efficiently as possible. But New York’s system can’t precisely identify where trains are on the track. This lies in stark contrast to cities like Hong Kong, that have started using artificial intelligence systems and infrared cameras. The London Tube and Paris Métro, which were founded in 1863 and 1900 respectively, have both taken measures to upgrade their signaling system. In the twenty years since promising to update the signaling system, New York has computerized one line: the L train. It’s now the most punctual train line in the city, leaving other NYC train lines in the dust. One subway track is not enough. As one MTA video cheekily put it, the current analog system is “an antiquated way to run a subway.”
The amalgamation of all these factors, combined with unforeseen circumstances like the 2008 financial crisis and Hurricane Sandy, has resulted in the subway reaching a new low. The subway now has the worst on-time performance of any train system on the planet, performing at a paltry 65 percent. In other words, there are up to 70,000 delays per month. These delays are only compounded by the piling circumstances previously delineated.
Yet, not all hope is lost. New York’s current crisis does not stand alone in the subway’s history. In the 1980s, the transit network hit new lows, but a public infusion of funding led to the subway’s renaissance: the 1990s, a period Governor George Pataki deemed “a transit Renaissance.” The MTA recently hired Andy Byford, the former chief of the Toronto Transit Commission, to be its new CEO. Further, the organization released an $800-million plan to fix the subway.
This time, though, the MTA has to get it right. Time will tell if these recent changes will lead to the long-term modifications needed to revive the subway. But for too long, the organization has been underfunded, misguided, and slow. It’s time for a change: a change in the MTA’s direction and increased cooperation between state and city governments so that they stop using the city’s lifeline as a political pawn. New Yorkers deserve the quality afforded to patrons of say, the metros of Tokyo and Hong Kong. But for now, New Yorkers deserve a subway that they can, at the very least, depend on.
Tobias Wertime is a member of the Class of 2020. Tobias can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.