I’m on vacation, currently in Marrakech after a week in France, so that’s why posting has gone silent. I’ll be back in the States later this week and will attempt to catch up on transit news. There’s been a lot happening lately, all worth some of our attention.

In the meantime, the MTA is finally set to unveil a new website on Monday morning along with a new app that’s supposed to unify and streamline the agency’s various online offerings. I first caught wind of this effort a few years ago and saw an early prototype of the app a few months ago. The bones for something useful were in place then, but the MTA bureaucracy has a way of stymying the best of technological intentions. The proof will be in the pudding come tomorrow.

In the meantime, read James Barron’s preview of the new app and a behind-the-scenes look at the MTA’s social media team in this Times article. It’s worth your time. I’ll have an in-depth look at the new site when in return, but feel free to share your thoughts in the comments to this post once the new site and MYmta app are public come late Monday morning.

Categories : MTA Technology
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Over the past few years, as subway service reliability has declined, New York City Transit has been loathe to take responsibility for the various delays, slow speeds and assorted problems. Instead, they’ve taken to blaming riders, and in particular, the high number of them, for delays. This isn’t particularly satisfying or rider-friendly, and it’s also come across as disingenuous. Delays due to too many riders isn’t a cause; it’s a symptom — a symptom of a poor and unprepared management.

An MTA prepared for increasing ridership, and perhaps an MTA that had noticed trends in the late 1990s and early 2000s and anticipating increasing growth, would have built demand into the system. A modern signal system in place before the current one started to completely break down would have allowed the MTA to ramp up service as ridership increased, but instead, we have a system weighted down by numerous signal timers that limit both train speeds and system capacity, thus leading to overcrowding that can further slow down trains. As I said, it’s a symptom and not a cause.

Now, though, Andy Byford has a plan to stop this victim-blaming. As Dan Rivoli reports in The Daily News today, the new New York City Transit president would like to phase out blaming delays on “overcrowding” and identify instead the root cause of these delays. Rivoli reports:

NYC Transit President Andy Byford and his team are ditching the “overcrowding” category in an overhaul of how information on train delays is collected and reported. Officials will use the data to speed up slow trains and fix spotty service, cutting down on the number of late trains.

Byford, in an interview with the Daily News, called “overcrowding” a “misrepresentation” and “misnomer.” Now, with the MTA in a repair blitz to fix aging equipment that causes major commuting headaches, Byford plans to tackle the small holdups and slowdowns that make for a crummy ride. “They just find that the service is very patchy, it’s very gappy,” Byford said, speaking of commuters. “That’s very frustrating to them. Our trains per hour isn’t as high as the signaling system will permit.”

…MTA board members on Monday will see the new way that delays will be tracked and tallied, which is still a work in progress. The most significant change will be the ambiguous “overcrowding” category, which became the most commonly cited reason for late trains that effectively blamed the riders for suffering subway performance. A new “operating environment” category will now cover many of the overcrowding and unassigned mystery delays.

While seemingly vague sounding, these metrics will have teeth behind them. As Rivoli reports, “operating environment” delays will include delays due to signal timers, and the “right of way” delay category will be axed in favor of one that specifically identifies delays due to failed signals and associated repair work. Much of these changes were driven by Rivoli’s reporting earlier this year when he detailed how the MTA hid the true causes of delays in the “overcrowding” category, and some increased transparency is much welcome.

On the surface, this isn’t a move with a direct impact on most riders. New Yorkers don’t really care why their trains are delayed; they just want to know that fewer and fewer trains will be delayed in the future. That is, however, something the MTA hasn’t been able to promise of late. But this granular level of delay information gets Transit on the right track toward combating delays. It’s easy to ignore delays due to “overcrowding” if you think overcrowding is the root cause of the problem. It’s harder to ignore delays due to signal timers when you know signal timers are the cause of the delays, and it’s easier to combat these delays by identifying and eliminating those signal timers that aren’t absolutely necessary.

These are of course baby steps, but they’re the right baby steps that Byford has to force Transit to take so service can get better in the future. He’s still saying and doing the right things, and as long as he has political cover to act, slowly and surely, he can work the subways out of this crisis. It’s going to be a long ride though, but at least it’s not one delayed by you and me and the 5.6 million other subway riders every day.

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With Byford’s blueprint in hand, will Andrew Cuomo save the subways?

Last week was an odd one for the Andy Byford subway rescue plan. Nearly immediately after its release, it became clear that Andrew Cuomo, as I wrote last week, didn’t know how to respond to the plan he essentially commissioned. He brought in Byford and personally interviewed him for the job with the idea that this Andy would fix the subways, but when the plan he came out, Andy C. punted. This move seemingly took everyone by surprise, but considering how Cuomo has embraced transit over the years, perhaps we should have expected it all along.

The politics of the moment, however, found a way to intervene, and the dynamics of the Democratic primary reared its head late last week. Shortly before Cynthia Nixon announced a kitchen-sink plan to fix the MTA — endorsing the Byford plan while calling for both congestion pricing and a Bill de Blasio-inspired millionaires’ tax to fund transit — Cuomo decided the plan he commissioned was one worth endorsing. Toward the end of last week, he made the call for a congestion pricing plan to fund the Byford proposal to save the subway. You can (and should) read Emma Fitzsimmons’ coverage in The Times. The question now is whether Cuomo will follow through, but since the Byford plan is a preview of the Transit asks for the next two MTA Five-Year Capital Plans, we won’t know for another year or so if Cuomo is serious.

The politics are the politics are the politics. After a while, having to convince the governor of New York to support the economic lifeblood of the largest city in the state gets exhaustingly tiresome. The governor doesn’t appreciate the transit system, and the person who should be New York City’s biggest champion thinks he’s the mayor of some suburban town of ten thousand drivers. Sometimes, I can’t help but thrown my hands up in disgust at the whole thing, but right now, that’s neither here nor there. The politics will play out in the coming months, and forces will likely align behind the bulk, if not all, of Byford’s plan. Which brings me in a somewhat roundabout way to a question: What exactly is in Byford’s plan? Though I wrote about it last week, I haven’t delved into the details so let’s do that.

In a sense, as I’ve mentioned, the plan is a preview of things to come. Byford accelerated the 40-year plan to replace the bulk of the subway signal system and will instead do it in ten years. He wants modernized interlockings and over 300 stations to be brought to a state of good repair. He wants a new fare payment system, 130 new ADA-compliant stations, over 3600 new subway cars (which I hope will include open gangways) and nearly 5000 new buses (which I hope all use clean-air technology). “We propose doing in 10 years what was
previously scheduled to take more than 40, including major progress in the first 5 years,” Byford said. “This means lines that are currently capacity-constrained will be able to carry more people, more smoothly and reliably.”

Visually, the plan looks like this:

I’m not quite sure what happens with the parts of subway lines that aren’t included in the ten-year upgrade approach. Do these non-modernized segments act as chokepoints that still limit the number of trains subway lines can accommodate? If, for instance, the 1 line between Van Cortlandt Park and 96th St. isn’t modernized while the remainder to South Ferry is, can the MTA run additional trains? And what of, for instance, the F between York St. and Church Ave.? Or the entirety of J train?

The plan isn’t without pain, and the pain is the key issue. The MTA considered and dismissed time-barred full-line shutdowns to accommodate the work and plans to maintain weekday train service. But Byford warns that “continuous night and weekend closures” may last for up to 2.5 years per line with both express and local service shutdown where applicable. What the plan does not detail is how exactly the work will go from taking 40 years to taking 10 or whether costs will fall in line with even the upper bounds of international standards rather than current spending which far exceeds that of any other comparable transit system.

Beyond the signal upgrades and CBTC installation, the rest of the plan does what the MTA should be doing but on an aggressively fast schedule. More stations renovated in shorter time frames. More ADA and other accessibility upgrades. Better management (which may be short for cleaning house). Actually delivering a new fare payment system. Route overhauls “to reduce reliance on critical interlockings.” It’s all what the MTA should have been doing for decades.

You can read through the plan document as a PDF right here. It’s a quick read, and it’s a blueprint for the future. Publishing it was the easy first step though, and the harder part is someone else’s political lift. That, as The Times’ editorial board writes today, is the hard part. “Mr. Byford’s plan asks New Yorkers to make sacrifices. They will have to pay more in taxes and fees and endure night and weekend subway shutdowns as workers fix lines and stations. But most people would be willing to bear that pain for a safer and more reliable transit system,” the editorial notes. “What is less clear is whether New York’s elected leaders can summon the necessary political will to turn this plan into reality. It was heartening to see Mr. Cuomo belatedly embrace Mr. Byford’s plan last week, but he has to back up his words with action. Because Mr. Byford is right: New Yorkers can’t wait 50 years for a modern transit system.”

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Andy Byford’s plan to modernize the city’s subway system will hinge on political support from a governor reluctant to embrace transit.

For the first four months of his time in New York City, Transit President Andy Byford has played his intentions fairly close to the chest. He has refused to engage in the political game of challenging Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s support of transit and wading into the ridiculous funding battle between the Governor and Mayor Bill de Blasio. He’s been open and honest about Transit’s shortcomings, particularly around ADA accessibility issues, accurate accounting of subway delays and the overall state of things. He was brought in to fix things, and that’s what he’s trying to do.

A few weeks ago, Byford unveiled his first big initiative — the bus turnaround plan. Designed to combat declining ridership caused by abysmally slow, unreliable and infrequent bus service, Byford wants to modernize the bus system and redesign the network. The project doesn’t include a big price tag, and the biggest ask is likely city-state cooperation. But the bus plan was just the appetizer.

Last week, Andy Byford revealed what is intended to be his pièce de résistance – his plan to rescue the New York City subway. It is now under the Fast Forward moniker with its own website and a lengthy PDF. In broad sweeps, Byford hopes to accomplish in 10 years what the MTA has long claimed would take 40: a complete modernization of nearly the entire subway signal system. “As I said when my appointment was announced, what is needed isn’t mere tinkering, a few tweaks here and there,” Byford said in introducing his plan. “What must happen is sustained investment on a massive scale if we are to deliver New Yorkers the service they deserve and the transit system this city and state need. Now is the time to think big and transform our network so it works for all New Yorkers.”

I’ll dive into the details and questions I have surrounding the plan in a later post. In summary, the plan is divided into two five-year halves (intentional), signal modernization throughout the city, ADA accessibility for around 150-180 stations and state-of-good-repair work at nearly 300 stations. It also includes over 3000 new subway cars and a new fare payment system. If some of these initiatives sound familiar, that’s because they are. Byford’s plan is essentially New York City Transit’s asks for the MTA’s next two five-year plans, and that’s fine. Byford’s approach is a politically expedient and operationally efficient way to line up this major work, and it will require riders to suffer some pain I’ll delve into later this week.

But political expedience can go only go so far, and nearly immediately last week, the messy ugly politics of transit in New York City came to the forefront. Prior to the plan’s great unveiling, early press reports indicated a price tag anywhere from $19 billion to $38 billion, and apparently that set off a storm in Albany. The announcement on Wednesday didn’t include a dollar figure, and the MTA disputed reports that Cuomo pushed the agency to omit any talk of money. Meanwhile, Cuomo issues one of his milquetoast statements that tried to indicate he had no idea what was coming or when despite his intimate involvement in MTA efforts lately.

Dani Lever, a Cuomo press representative, put her name on the initial statement. “Our bottom line is that the plan needs to be expeditious and realistic and we made it clear to the chairman that before it is finalized, the MTA must bring in the top tech experts in the nation. Because if we can experiment with self-driving vehicles, there must be an alternative technology for the subways,” she said. Cuomo repeated Lever’s statement nearly verbatim at the New York State Democrats’ convention last week before reenaging in his tired shtick over city ownership of the physical infrastructure of the subway system. It was really just a bunch of word vomit and an attempt by the governor to distance himself from the controversial and expensive subway rescue plan that the man he picked to rescue the subway produced.

And therein lies the political rub. Byford has stayed above the political fray because Cuomo has largely let him, but how long can that last? And if Cuomo’s words last week are to be taken seriously, are we to believe that Cuomo did not know about the New York City Transit President’s 10-year plan that, at one point at least internally, carried a potential cost figure of nearly $40 billion? This is the same Cuomo who micromanages everything and has his hand in as many political pots as possible. Cuomo knew.

And if Cuomo knew, is he setting up Byford to be the fall guy? Byford is the respected British expert who came to New York by way of Toronto and can plausibly be ignorant of the budgetary machinations that impact every aspect of New York state politics. He can be the guy who puts out the plan while Cuomo pretends to play the responsible adult, swatting it down for spurious claims of fiscal concern while salvaging some cheaper elements in an attempt to bolster his infrastructure cred. Maybe the signals are fixed, but maybe they’re fixed in 20 years instead of 40 (or instead of ten).

If that’s what’s going on, then I would humbly suggest Byford noisily exit while he can still save face. If the governor who brought him in to fix the problem won’t stand behind the solution, Byford should quit and quit loudly, burning down the house of cards as he goes. If Cuomo never intended to fix anything, Byford shouldn’t spend any more time on this forsaken transit system than he has.

Of course, it’s easy to say that but it’s not that easy for Byford to follow through. The subway rescue plan won’t start until 2020 at the earliest, and the funding fight is a long and arduous one that requires a strong subway champion. Perhaps Cuomo will come around (he already tried, at the end of last week, to walk back his initial comments once the skepticism seemed through), and perhaps Byford can be that champion. But right now, he’s firmly in the political thick of things, and the fate of the New York City subway system rescue plan, if not the entire system and the city itself, hangs in the balance.

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A few charts, along with some MTA editorializing, courtesy of the May 2018 MTA Board committee briefing book for the Transit Committee. The committee will be meeting in the morning to ostensibly discuss these materials, though it is anticipated that Andy Byford’s long-awaited subway rescue and Transit reorganization plan will take up the bulk of everyone’s attention. As these charts show, he has his work cut out for him.

And now a few brief thoughts: The MTA doesn’t really seem to know what’s driving these ridership declines. A bunch of months ago, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo claimed bus ridership declines were acceptable since subway ridership was on the rise, but it’s clear that’s not the case right now. Meanwhile, the agency has blamed the weather and higher fares for the declines in subway ridership and bus ridership respectively, but this seems to be a shot in the dark. Weather wasn’t noticeably worse over the past year, and subway ridership has been on a long-term decline as the city’s economy has seen job increases over the past 12 months. In my view, ridership is on the decline because service has been unreliable and unpredictable, and it’s creating a negative feedback loop in which more and more potential subway riders seek alternate means of travel.

Meanwhile, fare revenue for Transit from the start of 2018 through the end of March was around $38.3 million below expectations. If these trends continue throughout the year, the agency could be looking at an unanticipated budget gap of around $150 million. For an agency that operates on razor-thin margins, losing a significant chunk of ridership revenue could be a problem. For now, the MTA is adding subway service on some lines and focusing on ways to save the system. But it’s alarming that ridership is declining, the MTA doesn’t know why and any urgency around stopping the bleeding of paying customers seems nonexistent. Clearly this is a story worth watching as 2018 unfolds.

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In about a week or so, Andy Byford is going to reveal his big NYC Transit subway rescue plan to a public anticipating a Big Idea. Byford was brought in specifically to build this plan and execute on turning around the struggling subway system. It won’t be easy, and one of the major obstacles in Byford’s way is New York City Transit itself. The agency often can’t seem to get out of its way, and many of the current problems with fast and reliable service are self-inflicted.

One of the biggest problems, as I discussed in mid-March, are signal timers slowing down service throughout the city. These timers were a reaction to the 1995 Williamsburg Bridge crash, and in March, Aaron Gordon of the Village Voice explored how the MTA did not understand the effect the timers would have on capacity and service. A study nearly 20 years after the fact betrayed the MTA’s problems. “The 2014 study — the first time the authority had attempted to analyze the impact of any of the revamped signals, using its improved data system — found 2,851 lost total passenger hours per weekday could be attributed to thirteen modified signals alone. That was almost double the predicted impact; for comparison, the modifications of [] thirteen signals alone created 5 percent as much lost time as that experienced by riders of the entire London Underground on its average day,” Gordon reported, based on internal MTA documents.

This past week, The New York Times revised the issue with signal timers in an easy-to-understand graphic explaining how signal terms slow down service and decrease through capacity on the subways. It’s well worth your time to play with the interactive interface, and it’s worth remembering that the capacity of the system cannot exceed throughput at the slowest choke points. The Times piece delves into how the subways no longer have extra capacity because of the intentional choices the MTA has made over the past few decades. Here’s Adam Pearce on the problem:

The M.T.A. projected that the signal changes would not reduce the number of trains that could pass through a section of track each hour. But this assumed the signals would work properly and that trains would operate at the speed limit. In reality, many signals are poorly maintained and misconfigured, triggering emergency braking at speeds below the listed limit. An unpublished 2014 internal M.T.A. analysis, first reported on by The Village Voice, found that the signal changes caused a significant slowdown, more than the M.T.A. expected. Train operators face steep penalties after a number of instances of tripping a signal, like losing vacation days or being forced into early retirement…

The analysis stated that if the M.T.A. had known the signal changes would reduce the number of trains able to run on congested lines, they would not have been made. But the damage was done. After the signal changes, two fewer trains could run on the southbound 4 and 5 lines hourly, forcing the thousands of passengers those trains would have carried to squeeze into already crowded cars. Across the entire system, more than 1,800 signals have been modified since 1995.

To me, this graphic is the biggest indictment of all.

These stations in Lower Manhattan are absurdly close together and largely along straight tracks. A train operator on a downtown 4 or 5 train can see each station from the one before it, and yet, the signal timers add 15 seconds per trip from Fulton St. to Bowling Green. Over the course of a line, this adds up to a significant constraint on capacity, and delays due to “overcrowding,” an excuse the MTA has hidden behind for years.

The success of Byford’s plan will hinge on how he treats and responds to these signal timers. It’s guardedly good news that he has, as Jon Weinstein said to Pearce, “asked for an analysis of the impact of signal modifications on subway schedules.” But it’s not enough to ask; he has to respond and fix the problem (without sacrificing safety). But more on that — and the new flagging rules The Times noted — in a follow-up post.

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The city is investing more in ferries over the next few years. Is this a good use of public funds? (Photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

As long time readers of mine know, I am a bit of a skeptic when it comes to ferries. After all, we built a bunch of bridges and a subway system between the boroughs of New York City in part because the ferry system just couldn’t cut it as far as mass transit went. Ferries are, by their nature, a niche mode of travel offering low capacity and high operating costs, and in a city of millions, most of whom are landlocked miles away from the nearest ferry dock, a ferry shouldn’t be a political priority for public investment.

Yet, on Thursday, for what was at least the eighth time since the beginning of 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio was behind a lectern hosting a press conference about ferries. This time, he was in Bay Ridge to announce that, due to ridership projections that exceeded expectations, the city would be investing an additional $300 million in ferries over the next few years for bigger boats, better docks and a new maintenance facility. Total capital expenditures are now in the realm of around $500 million, and the city continues to expect to maintain a $6.60 per ride subsidy for all ferry riders.

On the one hand, this news about ferries could be interpreted as a positive development. The ferries are popular! People who ride them — whoever they are — love them! What could be better than a nice day on the water in New York harbor?

But let’s temper our enthusiasm a bit. The popularity is a function of expectations. Here’s a glimpse at the numbers, per the city’s press release. The New York City Economic Development Corporation, the agency in charge of the NYC Ferry system, hasn’t released ridership data publicly so we’ll just have to take the city’s word for it:

NYC Ferry launched on May 1, 2017. Original projections predicted 4.6 million riders once all six routes are operational and fully rolled-out. However, NYC Ferry carried 3.7 million passengers in its first year, with only four routes operating—and only two of them running for the entire 12 months. Updated projections based on the first year of service now show that demand could reach as high as 9 million riders per year by 2023.

As a comparison, Citi Bike carries the same ridership as the ferry system over the span of around four or 4.5 months depending on the time of year, and a random bus line with 4.6 million riders annually is good for around the 38th or 39th busiest in the city. Bill de Blasio has held no press conferences on the B9 lately and notably isn’t investing an additional $300 million in buses even if the opportunity is right there for him.

And even with this new investment, the 350-passenger ferries are still expected to operate only every 25-35 minutes. As the mayor said, “On a really crazy beautiful day in the summer when it seems like everyone in the city wants to go to the beach at the exact same time, there’s still going to be lines but we are going to be serving a lot more people and we’re going to be getting them where they want to go faster.” This seems problematic to say the least for something de Blasio has trumpeted as recently as this week as “the key to a future of New Yorkers being able to get around more easily.” More on this shortly.

Lately, as ferry fatigue has set in, de Blasio has faced some skeptical questions from the city press corps as the transcript from Thursday’s event shows. When asked about the lack of subsidy for Citi Bike, a significantly more popular mode of transit, de Blasio showed his hand and lack of holistic thinking on transportation. “I would argue that each element of our mass transit planning has to be seen individually,” he said. “I felt very strongly that the Citi Bike model could work without subsidy and I’m supposed to be the steward of the tax payer’s money. And if it could keep achieving its goals without it, of course that was the optimum reality and I still believe that.”

Toward the end of this question, de Blasio rambled his way to an interesting observation about the ferry system. “Private sector was out there for quite a while with ferries,” he said, “and some impact was seen. But nowhere near the potential, and we knew there had to be a public investment to actually achieve what was possible in one of the greatest coastal cities in the world.”

And here is where I want to pick up the thread. The mayor is correct that the ferry system worked good enough but has been far more popular with public investment, but that’s because we the taxpayers of New York city are subsidizing each and every ferry ride to the tune of around $6.60 per ride. We’re not subsidizing buses or subways to this degree, and Citi Bike pays for its space on the street.

Perhaps this is a good use of public money, but I’m skeptical. I’m not opposed to the idea of a ferry system that serves New York’s waterfront, but let’s take a deep dive into the people who may be taking the ferry. We don’t know for sure who these folks are because, again, NYCEDC hasn’t released a lick of ridership data. But I pulled some census data last week, and if you look at all of the census tracts that have a least one address within 0.5 miles of a ferry terminal in Queens and Brooklyn, median household income is around $18,000 more than city average, and if you exclude Astoria, the only dock truly amidst low-income housing, that median bumps even more.

Already, then, this generous subsidy is going toward wealthier-than-average New Yorkers, and since the ferries operate on a separate fare system, my quasi-educated guess is that ferry ridership skews even wealthier than census tract medians. After all, those riders who need to transfer to a bus or subway after their ferry rides would have to pay a second fare, and lower income workers are less likely to be able to do so. So as buses struggle and the mayor resists the Fair Fares initiative, does it make sense to subsidize rich New Yorkers who live in waterfront condos and work close to Pier 11 near Wall Street? This is a conversation we should be having about ferries but have not, as the mayor likes to pat himself on the back over boats without understanding how transit planning should be seen in totality rather than individually.

Ultimately, we may decide that having a robust ferry network is a net positive. Maybe we should subsidize these 9 million rides per year. Maybe we should do so while also investing similarly in buses and subways. After all, transit planning should be holistic. But for now, we should be aware that we are subsidizing a niche, low capacity transit mode with a ridership that skews rich. That is not a particularly good use of taxpayer money. Someone should tell the self-proclaimed steward.

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The city and state have spent months sparring over the subway action plan. With the money in place, can the MTA deliver?

I haven’t burned too many pixels writing about the politics behind the funding for the subway action plan because it is frankly an embarrassing distraction from the real issues at hand. The $1 billion will not, as Aaron Gordon recently wrote for The Village Voice, actually fix the subway problems, and the Mayor and Governor have both come across as childish and petty leaders who can’t set aside superficial differences to attack a problem affecting both of their constituencies. The MTA needs real reform and leadership, not money for arrows that urge people to move into the middle of a subway car.

Ultimately, the MTA is Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s responsibility. The state controls MTA appointees and the makeup of the MTA Board, and that message has started to sink in more and more these days. Still, after months of politicking and disputes over dollars that stretched back to last summer, Bill de Blasio agreed to add nearly half a billion dollars to the subway action plan. With a new City Council more sympathetic to Cuomo and keen to move beyond this debate, the mayor granted Cuomo his wish, and the full plan will be funded. We’ll see how quickly this improves commutes; so far, the subway action plan hasn’t resulted in any noticeable improvements in subway reliability.

The move to fund the plan came in late March, and in late April, after alarming headlines on the bottomless money pit that is the East Side Access, the mayor and new City Council speaker Corey Johnson realized they had just handed a massive check to an unaccountable organization. And so the two dashed off a letter to the MTA asking for accountability. Here’s their reasoning:

As elected leaders of the City of New York who are responsible for its fiscal health, we must ensure that precious taxpayer dollars are not diverted away from the subway crisis to other MTA priorities. The City pressed aggressively for a “Lock Box” as a condition of providing $418 million towards the SAP. Now that the Lock Box has been made explicit in State law, it must be put into practice by the MTA.

It is important that the MTA provide detailed information about each of the plan elements, including the scope of work being performed, how success is defined, and how progress is measured. Unfortunately, although the MTA began implementing the SAP last July, it has provided scant details to the public on its progress and the MTA’s own “major incidents” metric shows little improvement in service. City taxpayers deserve to know that they are getting a good return on their investment. The public is skeptical when it comes to work performed by the MTA, especially given recent public reports about prolonged delays and billions of dollars in cost overruns on MTA projects. For example, the East Side Access Project, which started with a budget of $4.3 billion and a completion date in 2009, will now require an additional billion dollars with a completion date in 2022 and an estimated price tag of $11 billion. The Enhanced Station Initiative, which started with a budget of $936 million to renovate 33 subway stations, will now require $846 million to renovate only 20 stations.

It is incumbent upon the MTA to prove that it can be an effective steward of this short-term emergency plan and that the revenues with which it has been entrusted are prudently invested to deliver results. To that end, we must have certainty that the Lock Box will be implemented and that the City’s contribution will actually be spent on projects that will improve subway service.

On its surface, the letter is fairly ordinary. It asks for monthly status reports on accountability and service improvement and a keen attention on signal upgrades. But it has details that shows the author of the letter has been paying attention. In parts, the city officials ask the MTA to restore all service that has been cut over the years and urge the agency to reassess signal timers, another recent headline. “While the safety of the system needs to remain paramount,” the letter says, “it has become clear that the balance between safety and service when it comes to the signal timers installed since the 1990s needs to be reevaluated. In light of that fact that in most parts of the system construction of new lines is unrealistic in the near term, we must do all we can to maximize the capacity of the system we have.”

I’m somewhat skeptical this letter will do much to move the needle. After all, the city has already ponied up the money, and the letter doesn’t attach actionable conditions to the dollars. The city similarly dropped the ball a few years when the mayor walked into Cuomo’s trap on capital plan funding and failed to ensure its contributions would go toward identifiable city improvements. But the MTA has expressed a willingness to adhere to the city’s requests. Joe Lhota, last week, in fact said the MTA embraced the call for transparency but didn’t respond to each of de Blasio and Johnson’s requests.

We’ll see what comes of it, but I think the closing paragraph of the letter hit the mark: “Failure is not an option and we firmly believe that a more transparent process can lead to better, more effective implementation. We are eager for everyone to put politics aside and support the important work of improving the commutes of millions of New Yorkers. Beyond the SAP, fixing the subway will require fundamentally changing the way the authority does business, including identifying non-City-tax-levy dollars to assist with funding improvements.”

Categories : MTA Politics
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The following post is my longer analysis of New York City Transit’s bus action plan. I originally wrote this up for Gotham Gazette, and you can read it here. I’ve expanded it for this post with some additional deep-dives into the plan itself.

In the Big Apple’s transit circles, Andy Byford has quickly become the hottest U.K. import since the Beatles. New York City Transit’s new president, brought in this winter from his job as the head of the Toronto Transit Commission, faces the unenviable task of fixing the city’s ailing subway system and restoring faith in its vital transit network. Just three months into the job, Byford is moving at a breakneck pace, and on Monday, he unveiled an ambitious plan to speed up New York City’s snail-like local buses and fight the tide of declining ridership.

The plan sets the bus system on the right road toward improvement but will require city and state cooperation and a change in NYPD culture, two elements in short supply these days that could torpedo Byford’s best efforts. It is also likely to require more money, which is also in short supply.

The New York City bus system is a curious thing. It is notorious unreliable with buses that crawl through city streets stopping every two or three blocks and with average speeds that barely exceed eight miles an hour. With infrequent and unreliable service, ridership has declined by nearly 10 percent since 2012 and 15 percent since 2002. Still, over 2 million riders a day rely on the city’s buses, and the bus system needs to be fixed.

Byford’s Bus Plan comes after nearly two years of heavy lobbying from the Bus Turnaround Coalition, a joint effort by the Transit Center, Riders Alliance, Straphangers Campaign and Tri-State Transportation Campaign. In 2016, this group called for an overhaul of the way buses work in New York City, and in 2018, Byford acknowledged their work in unveiling his plan. “We’ve listened to our riders’ concerns,” he said, “and are working tirelessly to create a world-class bus system that New Yorkers deserve.”

So what exactly is the plan? For now, it is an aspirational approach to better bus service with a 28-point agenda. The images embedded are from the plan, and I have added commentary as appropriate.

Byford wants to redesign the network by optimizing routes based on ridership needs while eliminating some stops to speed up service and expand off-peak bus frequency. Notably, he wants to expand off-peak service on what he calls “strategic routes” to better provide the last-mile connections a reliable bus network can provide. These types of redesigns require MTA action (though DOT will have to be a partner in improving street design).

Here, NYC DOT takes on a more important role. Byford wants to implement infrastructure upgrades that prioritize buses over other vehicles, including dedicated lanes and a signal prioritization system that allows buses to hold green lights or shorten reds. He wants exclusive busways — proposals that have more or less died in the face of driver opposition in recent years — and he will need DOT’s help. He calls for NYPD cooperation and effective traffic enforcement to keep buses moving through dedicated lanes.

Importantly, he proposes a faster boarding process, currently a main source of delays. To reduce bus dwell time — the minutes a bus spends sitting at a stop while riders dip their Metrocards or scrounge around for $2.75 in nickles, quarters, and dimes — Byford suggests all-door border, similar to London’s bus system; a tap fare payment card; and cashless bus fares. The final parts of the plan involve customer-focused improvements including more real-time bus countdown clocks, redesigned system maps, and more bus shelters along with some clean-tech buses to replace New York’s current gas-guzzlers.

On its surface, the plan is exactly what New York needs. Byford has shown that he understands the problems and drawbacks with the current bus network and is willing to propose a multi-part solution that involves every stakeholder and seemingly transcends the dysfunctional politics of the relationship between the city and state. But unfortunately with such an aggressive plan in play, each of these stakeholders are going to have to work together for this bus revitalization effort to succeed.

And to that end, except with respect to the all-door boarding and other technological upgrades to the buses themselves, Byford is now almost a bystander as he has shifted the onus to the city Department of Transportation, the NYPD, and Albany lawmakers to work together to realize his vision of a better bus network. But it’s his plan, and he will have to be a forceful advocate for it. Still, let’s look at the other players involved.

Let’s start with the city’s Department of Transportation. Since DOT controls the city’s streets, any changes to the way street space is allocated will have to start with DOT. Thus, additional bus lanes, dedicated bus corridors and the queue-jumping benefits of signal prioritization require DOT buy-in and support, and so will reducing the number of bus stops and changing street design to better support bus infrastructure. NYC DOT Commissioner and MTA Board member Polly Trottenberg voiced support for the plan during Monday’s meetings, but her boss, the mayor, a reluctant and infrequent transit rider who virtually never takes the bus, will have to be a forceful ally supporting these changes.

And then we have the NYPD. Currently, the NYPD seems to view the city’s bus lanes as, well, parking spots. Take a ride down the East Side’s avenues, and bus lanes will inevitably be filled with cops who have decided to park in curbside bus lanes, thus negating their intended purposes. The MTA, on the other hand, expects cops to be willing partners in enforcing bus lane restrictions and generally helping to ensure that other vehicles are not in the way of buses, impeding speeds and progress through congested city streets. (During a Twitter chat on buses on Thursday, Byford acknowledged that cops should not park in bus lanes. He seems willing to challenge the NYPD more than recent city leaders have.)

But cops alone are a poor and inadequate enforcement method, and NYPD culture is tough, if not impossible, to change. Thus, Albany takes center stage as bus lane enforcement should be automated and camera-based. Until now, the state Legislature has resisted giving the MTA carte blanche ability to install cameras that can assist in automated bus lane enforcement, but to truly tackle the problem of cars in bus lanes, Albany will have to act, and forcefully.

Finally, the elephant in the room is the cost. We do not yet know how much the bus plan will cost. It relies in part on moving pieces that are partially funded (such as a new fare payment system) and others that are not, and it will again be up to the governor to champion transit improvements in New York City so that they receive adequate funding. Facing the pressures and, more importantly, the headlines of a primary challenge, Andrew Cuomo has lately embraced certain positions he has rejected in the past, and mass transit support should be one of them. Perhaps, then, the time is right for the city and state to prioritize bus travel over car traffic.

Ultimately, the buses need fixing, but more importantly, the bus system needs to work efficiently so that New Yorkers have faith in it again. Buses can solve access problems in transit deserts and can be a part of the transit upgrades that a true congestion pricing plan would require. Byford has a vision that will improve bus service, but that is the easy part. Now he just has to convince everyone else to join him as well.

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Reducing dwell time and modernizing the boarding process, as Andy Byford’s bus plan proposes, will lead to markedly faster bus service.

It has been a two-year battle for transit advocates fighting for better bus service, but a coalition of bus champions secured a major victory on Monday as New York City Transit President Andy Byford unveiled a comprehensive 28-point plan to turnaround the city’s declining bus service. The plan is an impressive first step for Byford as he looks to manage the MTA out of various transit crises, and it involves implementing many international best practices — including all-door boarding and signal prioritization — to improve bus operations and combat steadily declining service. And it can’t come soon enough as average bus ridership in 2017 declined by over 5% against 2016 numbers.

“We’ve listened to our riders’ concerns and are working tirelessly to create a world-class bus system that New Yorkers deserve,” Byford said in a statement. “We’re targeting challenges like traffic congestion and enforcement, undertaking bold initiatives like redesigning the entire route network, and pursuing advancements such as the latest computer-aided management, double-decker and electric buses, all-door boarding, and improved customer service with more real-time data. Our customers will start to see changes this year and we will never stop improving this critical component of New York City’s transportation landscape.”

The plan — available here as a PDF — aims to tackle bus reliability, dwell time due to a slow fare payment process, real-time information regarding bus arrival times and overall service patterns. It will require cooperation from DOT and a new mentality from the NYPD on both enforcing bus lanes and not using them as parking spots for police cars and cops’ personal vehicles. And after years of MTA foot-dragging, the agency committed to all-door boarding as part of the new fare payment system. This ain’t, in other words, cosmetic; it’s the real deal.

This initiative is the culmination of nearly two years of advocacy work that began with a report issued in 2016 and tireless work by Transit Center, Riders Alliance, Straphangers Campaign and Tri-State Transportation Campaign. In fact. Byford credited these activists’ work in an interview with amNew York on Monday morning. Someone is listening.

The report though is a first step. Many of the improvements — a streamlined bus map, more real-time information signs — will arrive this year, but others — including the all-door boarding via the new fare payment systems — won’t be in place for a few years. The bus network redesigned to improve connections and usefulness may not be ready until 2021. So patience will still be key, and small improvements should lead to bigger ones.

I’ll have a full post with my analysis and thoughts tomorrow night, but as Byford’s first major operations announcement goes, this is a very promising one.

Categories : Buses
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