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A journey through the MTA’s lost and found

Earlier this summer, I arrived home late on a Friday night—late these days meaning after 8 p.m.—and was taking things out of my pockets after a long day. When I reached into my right front picket, I came to the realization that I did not have my wallet. My stomach tied in knots and I cried out in frustrated desperation. I knew it had been in my pocket; there would be no deus ex machina miracle of finding it in my bag or in another pair of shorts.

I knew that it most likely fell out of my pocket on my commute home. I had just gotten off the express bus—this bus was still on the road and someone could radio the driver! I immediately picked up my smart phone and dialed 311 for citywide information. The 311 operator would be able to connect me to the right person. The 311 operator transferred me to 511, which is the information number for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).

After a few more transfers, I spoke with someone I was told could help me. I gave them all the information I had. I was on a QM20 bus and was picked up from 6th Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan at approximately 8:40 p.m. and was dropped off at Union Street and 26th Avenue in Flushing, Queens at approximately 9:30 p.m. This driver was probably still on their route and with the information I had given them someone should be able to get in touch with the driver ASAP!

But no such luck. The person on the other end of the line said they could not do anything unless I had the bus number. Without the bus number, they could not contact the driver. Seems a bit ridiculous. If this had been a more serious situation and people’s lives depended on finding the bus, there would have been a catastrophe.

I was asked to call back the next day after the bus had gone back to the depot and the driver may have turned in the wallet. It was a small wallet, one that held only cards. I was not out any cash, unless someone was going to town with my debit card.

I started to call credit card companies and my bank to have holds put on cards.

The next day I called the depot. Nothing.

I called back the next day, and called back later in the day again. Nothing still.

I went through with canceling and replacing my credit cards and ATM card and replacing my driver’s license.

By Monday, there was no funny business on my cards and new ones were on the way. I printed out a temporary driver’s license and ordered a new card wallet that came with a money clip. My card wallet needed replacing anyway, and this was a chance to pare down the stuff I carried with me everywhere.

A few weeks later, the same day my new driver’s license arrived in the mail, a notice from the MTA Lost & Found arrived in the mail.

“An article which contains your name and/or contact information was found and turned in to the MTA NYC Transit Lost Property Unit,” the notice began. It instructed me to report to the unit’s office at the 34th Street subway station at 8th Avenue in Manhattan. If I did not claim my property by Nov. 3, “it will be deemed to have been abandoned and you will have forfeited your right to claim it.”

The next day I brought that notice and my newly replaced driver’s license to a hidden-in-plan-sight pocket of the 34th Street subway station in Manhattan. It took some searching and asking to find the lost and found office, which is beneath the tracks of the A, C, E subway lines and without any signs leading you there except in the immediate vicinity. It’s within the subway system, so if you arrive by some other means or exit the subway before you find it, you’ll have to spend another subway fare to reach it or get a helpful MTA worker to let you in.

A small sign points the way to a set of double doors painted in celebration of the many objects found in our transit system. The office is open odd hours—and completely closed weekends and holidays, a travesty in a system that runs 24 hours—but luckily is open until 6:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursdays.

Inside is a small room with a very low ceiling. I’m five feet eleven inches with my shoes on, and if I had extended my arm fully above my head I would have punched a hole in the drop-down ceiling. There is a metal bench to sit on, a small counter to stand and fill out paperwork on, two old-looking computer terminals, and a thick window above a pass-through door through which one may conduct business with the MTA workers on duty.

I arrived as a worker emerged from another set of doors to hand someone some paperwork, and she took my notice and ID and disappeared in to the bowels of the lost and found. The woman who was there spoke to someone at the window and was told to check back about her property later. She left and another woman arrived to ask if a book she lost on the subway was found. She was told no and to check back later; she left. Another man arrived and looked through his paperwork to check on a claim, and while he was speaking with someone another woman arrived to check on some property she had reported missing.

A worker arrived at the thick window with my wallet. It was a different worker than I had given my notice to; it was a rotating staff of workers answering questions and handling forms. He told me to sign my name on another form and write my address the same way it appeared on the notice in the mail. He opened the door to the silver box under the window and placed a clip board inside, and when he closed his door I opened mine and filled out the form.

A minute later, the same exchange reunited me with my wallet. It looked a little worse for wear, but nothing was missing. Everything was there: my license, my ATM card, my MTA MetroCard, even the coupon for a t-shirt at the zoo. I excitedly took an inventory of my wallet while my fellow transit visitors looked on amazed.

“You give me hope,” said the young woman sitting on the bench, hoping her property would be returned.

I thanked the worker and wished the other people in the office good luck, and went back out into the bustling station. For me, lost and found had worked out well.

Thank you to the Good Samaritan on the bus who turned in my wallet, and the series of honest MTA workers that made it possible for me to get my property back. For me the stars aligned this time.

Taxi scams are born anew

Technology continues to advance and change our world, human nature does not change. Technological advancement does not mean moral advancement. While we can summon a wealth of information in less than a second, the human race isn’t applying this knowledge in a way that makes our world any more just and fair.

And so it is with our taxi cabs. While technology enables us to hail cabs, it has not improved the ethical standards of drivers or riders. I have seen this illustrated across our city in several ways, but most vividly this past week.

It was after 6 p.m. and since I was out of work late I wanted to waste no time in getting home. I was in downtown Manhattan and the traffic looked painfully slow. I positioned myself near a street corner so a car could make a quick exit off of a bumper-to-bumper Broadway. I requested a ride from Lyft.

I got a call from the first Lyft driver.

“Hi this is your driver from Lyft, can I confirm where you are?”

“Yes. I am at Broadway and Worth Street. I’m a bit before Worth Street so you can make a left and get out of this terrible traffic.”

“And can I confirm where you are going?”

“Flushing, Queens,” I said truthfully.

A few seconds after our call ended. I saw that the driver had canceled my ride and the mobile app was searching for a new driver for me.

I also realized how I had made a terrible mistake. One of the features that is supposed to make ride hailing services better than hailing cabs on the street is that the application does not tell the driver where you are going until they confirm on their device that you are in their vehicle. This stops them from cherry picking rides the way yellow cab drivers do, asking passengers where they are going before they get in the cab, so they can avoid taking fares to destinations they don’t like.

Ride hailing drivers subvert this system in two ways: they will pull over and confirm on their device that you are in the cab when you are not, and then canceling the ride before you get to them. And, like they did with me, they call you and ask where you are going and then cancel the ride if they don’t like what you tell them.

The second Lyft driver called a few minutes later, doing the same thing. I didn’t tell them, but it didn’t help anyway.

“Can you confirm where you are going?”

“I’m on Broadway and Worth. I’ll see you soon. Are you nearby?”

“Yes. I am at Broadway and White Street. I will be there soon. … Can you confirm where you are going?”

“That’s a great question. I’ll confirm when I see you. And I’ll see you soon,” I said with the friendliest confidence I could muster.

My phone soon indicated that this driver had canceled as well, and now I had to start the request for a driver all over again. And guess what? The price for a ride was now about $20 more than when I was first looking for a ride. This made me livid but I was too tired to get worked up about it, and besides, I would have been mistaken for a crazy person, shouting at my smartphone in the middle of Broadway as downtown traffic slowly crawled by.

The third driver arrived and completed the trip. With all the shady driver shenanigans, I probably saved no time in getting home and would have been better off taking a subway or express bus.

A friend who is a yellow cab driver broke down the one issue he may have with taking fares to the outer boroughs: if it’s towards the end of his shift, he faces late fees if he brings his cab back to the garage late. That’s the only time he picks and chooses his fares, and he recommends reporting those drivers that won’t take customers where they want to go. My friend is exceptionally good at what he does, and even lets passengers know when they can get somewhere faster using public transit. I had one Lyft driver tell me that in Maryland recently, and I much appreciated it.

In a few short years, the drivers at ride-share services like Uber and Lyft have perfected many of the repugnant practices that sent riders away from yellow cabs to begin with. Ride-hailing service drivers are known to cancel rides in time to take advantage of surge pricing times. No-show cab drivers can still saddle would-be riders with $5 cancelation charges which are difficult (though not impossible) to fight through the companies’ Web sites. And yellow cab drivers are left in the lurch, many of them deeply in debt with loans for medallions that they may never be able to pay back, a situation regulators ignored.

At the same time, ride sharing services are in greater demand, since our public transit system is so rotten to the core the subways lines can be delayed even by an overflowing toilet.

As with yellow cabs, remain vigilant when you are taking one of the raid hailing services. What looks like a minor inconvenience could be another scam.

Congestion pricing will not fix our subways

New York is a city of many firsts. It was the first capital city of the United States; it had the first hot dog, first American public brewery, ATM, mobile phone call, and children’s museum.

It also promises to be the first American city to institute congestion pricing on cars driving into its busiest areas. Although these fees are not expected to take effect until 2021, it could cost motorists up to $10 to drive into Manhattan below 60th Street according to a plan expected to be passed April 1 as part of the New York State budget.

It could mean as much as $14 for a car and more than $20 for a truck going into Manhattan. That’s likely going to be on top of heavy tolls already paid to take the bridges and tunnels needed to get into Manhattan in the first place. Cities such as London and Stockholm have instituted congestion pricing and it’s considered a success there, but those cities have more viable public transportation.

New York City has one of the most comprehensive public transit systems in the country, and that’s more of a statement on how sorry the U.S.’s transit system is than a compliment to New York.

The politicians that are advocating for congestion pricing are doing so because they don’t want to do the hard work it would take to fully fund the M.T.A. It means possibly raising taxes and definitely raising fares. It means significantly reforming construction policies to reduce exorbitant costs. Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, who despise one another, agree 100% that this is a good idea, which is as good a reason as any to oppose it.

People are turning more to cars because public transit is so unreliable and unpleasant. I once worked with a man who had health issues and had to go to the Bronx every other day from work in order to have kidney dialysis done. He took a cab there because he couldn’t be late and his health issues meant he couldn’t be wedged into a subway car with a few hundred of his closes friends. He was able to get some of his cab fare subsidized, but that’s money that could have been spent elsewhere if we had a reliable transit system, and it’s on the backs of people like my former coworker that this new tax is going to be balanced.

I would rather not spend about three times the regular fare to get to work, but I know I need to be on time to work and not on the cattle car that passes for the 7 train these days, so I splurge for an express bus. It’s still a lot less than a cab but more expensive than a regular subway or bus fare.

Congestion pricing is going to cost the people who can afford it the least: cab drivers or people who have their spouses or friends drive them to work or who are carpooling like good citizens. There will be a significant portion of people who will avoid paying it using the same schemes that work with the now toll-booth-free tolls and red light cameras.

We will fight this out in the press and in the courts until congestion pricing becomes the law of the land or not. But all that will be time wasted building the political capital, civic will, and thoughtful plans needed to truly fix our transit system.

The mystery commuter on the QM20 bus

For about a year and a half, I have commuted to and from my job in Manhattan using an express bus, a more expensive but comfortable coach bus run by the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

Most of the bus drivers who drive these buses hustle to get us through traffic and make good time getting into Manhattan from the Eastern reaches of Queens. A meek or extremely defensive driver is going to fail at driving and express bus, and fail hard.

And that’s been happening recently in the early morning on the QM20 line. One driver I have not seen but only heard about, an older gentlemen, is a slow-paced driver that is content to hang in the slow lane of early rush-hour traffic while his passengers fret about reaching work on time. I have spoken with people who have stopped riding the 6:45 bus because they cannot get to work on time if they ride it. In fact, the 7 a.m. bus routinely reaches Manhattan sooner.

Because the driver of the 6:45 a.m. bus is such a pathetic slowpoke, passengers that used to take that bus now flood to the 6:30 bus. There are now at least three times as many passengers waiting at the bus stop for the bus I take, which means the other stops are all more crowded as well. I used to be able to find a seat all to myself with regularity, now it’s nearly impossible.

Yet still people insist on putting their bags on seats, even knowing that they’ll have to move them at some point. It’s a gamble on their part, they’ll possibly get the seats to themselves if enough passengers decide not to ask them to move. I usually make it a point to make these rude people move their bags, though if they are an exceedingly large person then I will often pass them by because I’m a large person also and then we’re both crammed into our seats seething and miserable. There is one rude fat bastard on my bus line who does this without fail and sits in corpulent luxury every day.

Sometimes I’ll choose people who are polite and thin because I’ll have more room. There’s a man who uses his time on the bus to sketch drawings and I feel camaraderie sitting next to someone interested in the arts, even if I never talk to him.

This past Monday however, there was a mystery man and I felt I had to sit next to him. By mystery man I mean someone who had a black wool hat pulled down all the way over his face. This was not a ski mask (aka balaclava), but just a hat that normally sits on top of the head and over the ears. He had it pulled down all the way over his face, so that his head was just one monolithic orb of woolen darkness.

I was appreciative of the aesthetic and felt a kinship to it. I often wear a ski mask when I perform in bands, and have enough ski masks at home to clothe a paramilitary battalion for a decade. So I sat next to this man. He was a bit spread out but I managed to get comfortable enough and read the news on my work phone. I didn’t want to see the man’s face, wanting his mystery to be kept for all eternity or at least until the weather was warmer and one would have to be psychotic to wear a winter cap. But no, soon after we rolled into Manhattan the man woke up and pulled up his hat revealing the countenance of a middle-aged commuter.

I don’t know where the man departed the bus. I got off at my usual stop at Herald’s Square and made my way downtown, hoping to engage with more of life’s mysteries as the day wore on.

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