Why the NYC Subway's a Mess, in 5 Powerful Stats

Getty Images / Drew Angerer

The New York City subway is hell, but when you compare its efficiency to most other mass transit systems around the world, it’s a surprisingly effective hell. Nevertheless, after 113 years and counting, the rail is showing its age — badly. Ridership is swelling, most equipment is being stretched way beyond its intended lifespan, and delays and reroutes are getting worse and worse.

Yet, there are several ways the city could remedy the ancient network of steel of wheels, into something finally resembling a transportation mode befitting the 21st century. On Monday, The New York Times published a pretty comprehensive feature outlining the struggles facing the aging subway, and what the city needs to consider in order to move forward with solutions. In particular, there are lessons the city can take from its counterparts at the London Underground — the oldest subway in the world — and the system that ferries more than five million people a day and is quickly becoming a bastion of modernization.

Governor Andrew Cuomo delivers remarks at the start of the Little Neck Douglaston Memorial Day Parade on Monday, May 26, 2014. Credit: Diana Robinson

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5. The Governor, Not the Mayor, Controls the Subway

It’s not a secret, but it is something a lot of residents don’t immediately remember: Governor Andrew Cuomo is the one ultimately charge of funding and running the subway. When New Yorkers get pissed off about the myriad of problems plaguing their underground morning commute, much of the ire is focused on Mayor Bill de Blasio, but it’s Cuomo who really has the authority to give the metro-plant transportation authority, or MTA, more funding to renovate older equipment and turn things in a digital, streamlined platform.

This makes sense when you really consider how mass transit systems around the world work. They’re not simply meant to service residents who live within the city boundaries alone — they are to serve everyone in the metropolitan area who are trying to go back and forth between home and work. Many commuters around the country take multiple public transit modes to get around, such as transferring from a light rail onto a city bus. Urban populations are going to experience a boom this century, but that also means the suburban sprawl will push outward as well. State governments are typically tasked with guiding the work on mass transit systems that cross multiple jurisdictions — and that role will only get bigger as growth increases.

Unfortunately, however, it means that there’s another layer of authority and bureaucracy that has to sign off on major changes, and this inevitably slows things down.

Commuters start at art by Sarah Sze at the 96th St. Q train station on the newly opened Second Avenue subway line on January 01, 2017 in New York City.

Getty Images / Yana Paskova

4. It Could Take $20 Billion Over 50 years to Actually Make the Subway Modern Again

The Times piece estimates that at the current rate of renovation work, it would probably take about $20 billion dollars over half a century to fully augment the subway and its equipment into a modern network that’s supported by computerized instruments. That kind of work would turn the subway system into an extremely efficient system which would cut down on delays, provide commuters with up-to-speed information on when their trains are arriving, and give operators a much bigger heads-up when problems arise.

The problem, of course, is that $20 billion is a lot of money. And you can’t simply shut down the entire system and fix everything in a quick few weeks or months. You have to work piecemeal, which is why work like this can stretch for literally decades.

3. The Signal System is 30 years Past Its Intended Age

Most of the subway’s signal systems are 80 years old. Those instruments were only designed with a 50-year lifespan, Wynton Habersham, head of the subway department for the MTA, tells the Times. Some of those systems, however — like that guides traits through 34th Street in Manhattan’s Midtown neighborhood, is over 80 years old. It works, of course, but it’s nothing short of insanity that millions of commuters a day have to rely on a series of switches and cables installed before World War II.

And there’s tangible proof for how turning the signal system into a computerized network can improve things. Which brings us to…

Commuters travel on the District Line of the London Underground.

Getty Images / Oli Scarff

2. The London Underground Can Move a Train Through Every 1.6 Minutes. The New York Subway Can Only Do One Every 2.1 Minutes

That’s right — the British are beating Americans using a train system established while the U.S. was marred in a civil war. The signaling system the London Underground is employing is an incredibly more reliable network that never seems to create delays. The Tube’s Victoria line, one of the busiest, reaches a peak of 36 trains per hour — versus New York’s Lexington Avenue line of just 29 trains per hour. That difference may not seem incredible, but if you have ever dealt with the aggravation of waiting for a 6 train in Midtown, you’ll know those minutes add up very fast — especially during rush hour. Renovations could shed those minutes off not just during peak hours for the most widely used lines, but for other lines plagued with inconsistencies.

1. New York City is Aiming to Computerize Every Signalizing System by 2045 — and It Will Probably Miss the Deadline

In 1997, the city set a deadline to turn every signaling system in the subway into a computerized network by 2017. It’s very badly missed that deadline. The new date it’s aiming for is 2045 — and it will almost certainly miss that deadline, too. As mentioned, transit systems are a pain in the ass to fix, because of how difficult it is to work on them bit by bit. You can’t just shut down a line for a period of time unless you have a replacement system ready to accommodate travelers. Moreover, forget about trying to conduct work during rush hours — everything needs to be taken care of at night or over the weekends.

The London Underground managed to get its network renovated because it hasn’t run round-the-clock service until recently, and it also charges higher fares. It’s almost impossible that New Yorkers will acquiesce well enough to losing overnight service on the subway (one of its key advantages over other cities), and quietly accept higher fares without a riot. It makes for a more convenient present, but the future will be more difficult to improve because of this. New Yorkers may be forced to reckon with hard choices soon.