Changing jobs means figuring out new benefits and pay scales, learning new things and figuring out how to get your email to work correctly at your new job. In New York we have the additional calculus of our daily commute.
My old job was in the Flatiron District, which from Flushing meant a bus to the 7 train at Main Street, the 7 train to Grand Central Terminal, and the 6 train from Grand Central to 23rd St. When things went well, this commute could be as little as an hour. When things went wrong, this commute could be grueling. The 7 train is a deceptive beast that is almost always overcrowded and miserable and picks the absolutely worse times to crap out on commuters. During my last week at my old job, the geniuses at the MTA decided to have our 7 train boot out all of its Manhattan-bound passengers out at the Hunter’s Point stop – a stop with no other connecting trains. The 6 train was often overcrowded or late, and construction on Main Street meant that taking a bus home took longer.
I decided to go with a completely different route to downtown Manhattan, where my new job is. At the recommendation of my wife, I began taking the express bus into Manhattan. The express bus is a like a coach bus, but it operates within the city on very specific routes. The QM20 picks up passengers right across the street from my building; it and the QM2 can take me home via 6th Avenue near 34th. An R or W train (which are still too slow) can take me downtown from there.
The express bus is more expensive—$6.50 each way—but if you’re able to do it you won’t look back. If you catch it early enough you will avoid the worst of rush hour traffic (not always though) and even though you’re in the thick of rush hour on the ride home, it’s a more pleasant ride where you see an interesting cross-section of the city.
There is still your average public transit douchery on the express bus. You can see riders put their belongings on the seat or put their seats back as if they are in business class on an airline. But these are pretty minor when compared to some of what you can see on the subways. I have yet to hear the telltale clicking of someone clipping their nails like I would hear on the subway or regular bus. I have never seen anyone forced to stand for a lack of seats.
The express bus engenders its own solemn fraternity. Like the rest of the city it is an odd cross-section of workers and even a few retirees. A few people greet each other as old regulars – they take the same bus and see each other frequently. I already recognize a few regular faces, which is not something that happened very often on the 7 train.
I find it hard to read on the bus because I’m still enjoying the new view. Going into Manhattan gives riders a long view of the skyline but then the bus winds its way through the Queens-Midtown Tunnel and across 34th Street. It is interesting to have an above-ground view of Manhattan waking up in the morning and a Herald Square not quite buzzing to life, with homeless people camped out not too far from Macy’s. The ride home takes us up 6th Avenue which gives a view of Radio City Music Hall and across 59th Street past the Plaza Hotel. Then it goes over the 59th Street Bridge where a fleeting view of Manhattan is starting to glow with the approaching night, and the light of dusk overhead usually contrasts with the brackish hue of the East River. Then it spends most of the ride through Queens on Northern Boulevard, where the car dealerships of Long Island City and Astoria melt away to the Spanish-speaking businesses of Corona.
The new job is a new adventure and so far I haven’t been fired yet. I’ll continue to take the express bus to and from work, taking in the city in a new way.
I am convinced that living in areas not immediately within walking distance from a subway may save them from gentrification and cultural death. I am fortunate enough to live in one of those thankfully un-hip areas of the five boroughs. But while my neighborhood is still overpriced and overcrowded, it still retains some of its old-world New York charm and character.
But I rely on buses to get me to the 7 train that gets me to the 6 train that gets me to work. The 7 train and the 4-5-6 line in Manhattan are two of the most miserable and overcrowded subway lines in the entire system, which is quite an accomplishment.
But I’m lucky. I’m lucky I have a job that I can safely commute to. I’ve also learned some of the tricks of the trade that can at least alleviate my daily aggravation somewhat. One of them is catching a ride on the Q34 bus when I can.
The Q34 is my preferred bus. I can get on early enough to have a place to sit in the morning and if I take it home in the evening I can usually get a set as well. Because it’s a smaller line and its riders are usually from a middle-and-working class part of Queens, there is a greater degree of civility than on the other buses I could take. The Q44 goes from the Bronx all the way to Jamaica, Queens and is almost always crowded. The Q20 is a local version of the Q44 when it passes by my home, so it picks up all the angry people who couldn’t fit or who would otherwise be miserably stewing on the Q44. After you’ve been on the Q44, the Q34 feels like a VIP lounge with diesel fumes; it’s the Rolls Royce of regular-fare bus rides when it’s working properly.
But here is the catch: the Q34 is a rogue ghost ship during the evening commute. Somewhere in a dark alleyway in downtown Flushing there must be a gaggle of Q34 drivers spending their evenings gambling or drinking themselves into a stupor while what seems like one lone bus drives the entire route by itself, and slowly. If you get to Main Street and see no line for the Q34, forget it. Then again, I’ve done that only to see a near-empty one drive by minutes later.
Normally I know to jump on the line for the Q34 when I see that there is one at Main Street. If there are people waiting in any significant numbers, it means enough time has elapsed since the last bus arrived that the next one cannot be too far off. This bus stop is at the corner of Roosevelt Ave. and Main St. in Flushing, Queens, which makes it one of the busiest pedestrian intersections in the city if not the world. It’s also right outside a busy Duane Reade convenience store. The stop is on a stretch of street that hosts several other bus stops.
The line for the Q34 got so long that it doubles up upon itself like a large snake folding itself in half. Pedestrians bump into people waiting on line even when they try not to. Multitudes of buses roll down that section of Main Street, very few of them are Q34s.
And last week I achieved something that is rare even in the miserable world of Queens bus transit: I stood on line for the Q34 longer than it would normally take to drive the entire length of the Q34 route.
One reaches a point oftentimes of waiting for public transit that you want to give up in disgust and find another means to get going to where you have to be, but you’ve invested so much time in waiting that you refuse to budge. Damn it, I’m going to get my money’s worth and the MTA isn’t going to win this round! I found myself standing in the cold among the other miserable people waiting for the Q34 with this same mentality. I would enjoy a seat on the Q34 this evening if it was the last thing I ever did.
I have no right to complain, as I have other options for getting home in the evening. But many of the people who ride the Q34 do not have that option, and the underserved but route is all that stands between them and a pricy cab ride or a long walk home.
Presidential candidate and former Secretary of State, carpetbagger Senator, First Lady Hillary Clinton was recently criticized for needing to swipe her MetroCard five times to access the New York City subway system. She rode the 4 train all of one stop after entering, and technically broke the law by campaigning in the subway.
There are a lot of things to criticize Hillary Clinton for, but the media focused on her needing five swipes to get her MetroCard to work. But the MetroCard incident (if you can even call it that) didn’t expose Secretary Clinton as being out of touch, it demonstrated what any New York City resident will tell you in a heartbeat: New York’s subways are horrible and only getting worse.
I’ve been a regular New York City subway rider for nearly 20 years now, I’m a seasoned professional when it comes to riding the subway, and there are times when I will need five swipes or more to get through the turnstile.
And the MetroCards and the turnstiles are only the tip of the iceberg. The entire subway system is unreliable, poorly run, and in need of massive reform reconstruction.
The same week that Hillary Clinton had her MetroCard wielding skills thrown into doubt, I visited the subway system’s newest station for the first time. The 34th St. – Hudson Yards station opened up last September to much fanfare as being the sleek, modern station of the future that the city had been waiting decades to see. I had to ask someone where it was because signs do not lead pedestrians to the station and it is surrounded by the massive Hudson Yards construction project. But once you find it, and this is old news now, the Hudson Yards station is a leaking boondoggle. When I got the station, all but one of the down escalators were out of service.
In theory the station is supposed to be ready in a few years to welcome thousands of people who work there and see off thousands of residents who will live there during the workdays. It can barely handle the small amount of traffic it gets now. In fact it proved to be a disaster even before it opened.
And the 7 train is the most overloaded train line in the system (though there are several other leading candidates for this honor, the L train being one of them). Even if the Hudson Yards station is the dream station it was meant to be by the time the construction on Hudson Yards is completed, there are no plans to double the tracks or the capacity of the trains, so the transit authority thinks that a few extra thousand users a day can be absorbed by the 7 line with no problem. That idea is absurd.
And as bad as the 7 line service is, there are actually train lines with less reliable service. Almost every workday, as I’m on my way to work. Emails from workers in the small office I work in arrive on my phone. Just about every day at least one or two people are emailing that subway or commuter train lines are messed up and they may be late for work. My first day back in the office this year after the holidays, it took me two and a half hours to travel 13 miles, and that was after I gave up and got out of the subway at Jackson Heights and took a cab the rest of the way to work.
Here is what New York City’s subway system desperately needs:
Infrastructure overhaul: New York’s subways are running on an antiquated switching system that in some places is more than 100 years old. There’s no excuse for that in a city as modern as New York.
More trains: No one should wait more than fifteen minutes for a train or bus anywhere in the system anytime. Am I unrealistic? No. It’s a matter of public safety at night as much as it is a matter of decent public transit.
Faster trains: The trains were made to run slower after an accident in the 1990s. Let’s reverse that and let the trains go at the speeds they are able to move. The way to avoid accidents is to avoid accidents, not degrade the service to mitigate risk.
More passenger capacity: The Long Island Rail Road has some trains that are doubled decker and can handle more passengers. There’s no reason we can’t have that for the city. The same applies to busses. If the tourist busses can be double decker, there’s no reason that some of our transit system busses can do that as well.
New York City is the greatest city in the world. It deserves to have a transit system that reflects that. We are far from that today.
New Mayor: Bill de Blasio is the first Democrat elected mayor in New York in more than 20 years. He managed to unite New York Democrats and ran a very smart campaign. He’s inheriting a shit show from outgoing Mayor Bloomberg in the form of multiple city worker contracts that have expired. Thousands of city workers have been working without a contract for years and they expect their liberal Democratic mayor to pay up and fast. De Blasio knows he can’t give his many supporters everything they want. He’s got to walk the tightrope of trying to hold together a liberal coalition that wants to increase taxes on the wealthy without scaring away the rich New Yorkers who provide the city’s much-needed tax base.
Super Bowl: The Super Bowl will bring more money to New York City, even though the game is being played in New Jersey at Giants Stadium or MetLife Stadium or whatever corporate behemoth blows a wad of cash to put its name on it by next year. Of course, the powers that be are hard at work making sure that the game will be expensive and less fun than your average Jets or Giants routing that normally takes place there. They have banned tailgating at the game, which is like banning praying in church.
Extended 7 Subway Line: The No. 7 subway line is scheduled to open in June 2014, but the authorities ran a special train just so outgoing mayor Bloomberg could ride it before he left office. It currently runs from Flushing, Queens to Times Square in Manhattan. The extension will run to 11th Avenue and 34th Street, near the Javits Convention Center. As a commuter who takes the 7 train every day to work, I loath this upcoming extension. The 7 train is a crowded clusterfuck of a subway line. Unless the MTA has a magic train fairy ready to plop massive double-decker trains on the line right before the extension opens, they are about to make a bad situation much worse. The silver lining is that it will make it easier for people to get to the Javits Center for conventions. But really, slow-moving tourists who don’t know where they’re going is not what we really need more of on our subways.
Fulton Street Transit Hub: On the good news end of public transportation grand openings in 2014, the Fulton Street Transit Hub in lower Manhattan may open in 2014. The Fulton Street subway station has been a maze of construction closures for close to a decade now, and some of the improvements are already evident. It has been delayed and scaled down from its original, more elaborate plans, but it will be a vast improvement.
Real Community Organizing: We’ll see more real community organizing in New York in 2014, and by community organizing, I mean citizens getting together outside of government institutions to do things for themselves. Most people think of community organizing as people getting together to petition for increased benefits or air grievances of one form or another. But as our fractured city and nation find official institutions continually lacking, more New Yorkers will see the wisdom in doing things for themselves. You’ll see more Community Supported Agriculture (not just for hippies anymore), more home schooling (not just for religious fanatics anymore) and the like. New Yorkers are resilient and inventive. That won’t change.