Tunnel Vision

Is New York’s Subway System Actually Getting Better?

It's been a year since the $836 million Subway Action Plan was introduced. It's been working, but New Yorkers haven't seemed to notice.
Spencer Platt/Staff at Getty Images

In early 2019 the L train in New York City will shut down for 15 months between Manhattan and Brooklyn to repair damage caused during Hurricane Sandy. Leading up to the closure, VICE will be providing relevant updates and proposals, as well as profiles of community members and businesses along the affected route in a series we're calling Tunnel Vision. Read more about the project here.

Just over a year ago, Joseph Lhota, the chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), declared to a group of board members and reporters (myself included) at the MTA headquarters in downtown Manhattan: "We're here because the New York City subway system, no doubt, is in distress, and we're looking for solutions.”


That was the introduction to the Subway Action Plan (SAP), an $836 million plan to “stabilize” the New York City subway system. A month before, as delays soared, infrastructure crumbled, and on-time performance statistics sank to the bottom of most major cities, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a “state of emergency” for New York’s mass transit. The plan was a multi-pronged effort to, at least, get the trains running on time again, and Phase I amounted to a year-long adrenaline shot of fixes to make up for years of deferred maintenance.

When asked how subway riders would know if SAP was working, Lhota painted his own red line in the sand. "Hold me accountable for everything I've talked about today," he said.

And that’s where we find ourselves today, a full year into the era of SAP. Last week, the MTA board gathered for its monthly meeting, where New York City Transit (NYCT) President Andy Byford and his head of subways, Sally Librera, delivered a progress report. The prognosis: it is working. Yet whether or not riders have noticed is a different story.

“I think already, the fact that the data is improving, we can point to a stabilizing of the system,” said Byford, at a press conference after the meeting.

Shortly before, a slideshow presented a laundry list of so-called successes on the tracks. Major incidents that delay 50 trains or more—in other words: system-shocking events, which happen easily in an interconnected network—decreased from 72.4 to 69.5 a month. This past August, there were 60,211 delayed trains; last August, 66,295. On-time performance increased from 63.7 percent last year to 64.8 percent this year. And mean distance, as in the miles a train goes without breaking down, increased from 117,414 last year to 122,334 this year.


And then, there were the maintenance fixes. Since SAP was implemented, the MTA said workers had sealed 2,000 leaks; cleaned 285 miles of track; installed 100,000 friction pads; cleared debris from 31,000 street grates; and performed maintenance on over 1,600 cars. This work is largely done at night and on weekends, which, for the last year, has largely left the New York subway system a fractured mess during those times.

Despite those stats, the gospel of good fortune for the New York City subway system was met with skepticism, and even doubt. Commuters had just found out through a study done by Riders Alliance, a transit advocacy group, that there was just one morning rush hour without delays in August. On Twitter, we’re seeing videos of ceilings collapsing at stations built decades ago. And while the L train shutdown is its own separate beast, its larger implications have left riders with a serious sense of dread.

At the meeting, MTA officials admitted that the data doesn’t tell the whole story: the agency said it was still unsure what drove 40 percent of delays, and as the Daily News reported, those “major incidents” account for a mere 11 percent of weekday delays. (Throughout the SAP work, Byford also said they uncovered more state of repair work that had to be done.) Then the existential questions start to creep in: What does “stabilizing” mean, in terms of day-to-day performance? And what, exactly, is the target level of performance? Functional?


Those themes are at the heart of New York City transit advocates’ clarion call for Albany to provide sustainable funding for a much more dramatic system-wide overhaul. For clarity, the short-term fix is the Subway Action Plan, which was funded (after much politicking), and is now being implemented. But the long-term plan—to fully modernize the age-old system over the next five to ten years—is Byford’s brainchild: the Fast Forward Plan. And as it stands, Byford is still looking for the money to put it into place.

"We've gotten to the point where it's far more common for riders to experience subway delays each day than to not,” said Jaqi Cohen, a campaign coordinator for the Straphangers’ Campaign, a longstanding transit advocacy group, in a statement. “It's been well over a year since the MTA released its Subway Action Plan. What riders need is assurance that subway service is getting better, not worse."

The proposed solutions include a congestion plan scheme—where drivers would be charged to enter Manhattan’s commercial district—as well as a tax on New York’s highest earners to fund mass transit. Both died in the Legislature last year, and the interval fix was a surcharge on for-hire vehicles, which will raise a tiny fraction of what’s actually needed. (Which some observers peg to be at least $19 billion.) However, the election of transit-focused Democrats, who led the primaries this year, could flip the State Senate blue in November, and all eyes will be on Cuomo to finally pass something should he be re-elected for a third term. (Which he likely will be.)

At the board meeting, Byford reiterated his demand for the government to fund his Fast Forward Plan, saying, “If you stop at the ‘as is,’ you're condemning New Yorkers to the status quo.” In the meantime, however, he said that while passengers “don’t feel like the subway system has materially improved,” they should know that the subway system is “not getting any worse.” (Thankfully.) The data is on the upward swing, albeit slowly; it just may take time for it to really bake into our lives.

“Again, we’re back to dealing with perceptions rather than, necessarily, reality,” Byford said, when asked when that transit salvation will appear. “The more that the reality, the data, translates into people saying it’s better, that’s when you have your answer."

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.

Follow John Surico on Twitter.