Tag Archive | transit

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.

Work from home during our latest transit hell

New York City is entering a deeper level of transit hell this week.

That transit officials are already saying how bad our commute is going to be and begging companies to let their employees work from home wherever possible is significant and should strike fear in the heart of every New Yorker. Our transit authorities are normally presenting a falsely rosy view of how their systems operate. I have no doubt that the official numbers they give for on-time arrivals and such are soundly bogus, cooked up with some noxious bureaucratic justification and presented with a straight face.

Things on our subways have been getting significantly worse. Commuters trapped hours underground on un-air-conditioned subways, a young man stuck in a train so long he missed his entire college graduation ceremony, trains that are more crowded, the list of grievances goes on. Add to this some new Amtrak and N.J. Transit derailments and you’ve got a strong brew of grade-A clusterfuck ready to be served.

So those advisories to let people work from home whenever possible should be taken seriously. For a lot of commuters in today’s working world, the daily commute is an unnecessary exercise in frustration and lost time. Having the ability to work from home takes a lot of worry off your plate and improves morale.

In this day and age, more companies would save a lot more money by letting more of their employees work from home more often. We hold devices in our hand with more computing power than it took to put men on the moon (really). Anyone with a home computer or a work laptop should be able to work from home easily. If I can figure out how to work from home effectively, any desk jockey can pull it off.

One day earlier this year, when the city was threatened with a large snowstorm and the transit systems were closed in advance, our entire office worked from home. It was one of the most productive days any of us have ever had. Without the horrendous commute to take into account, the vast majority of us had an additional two hours of time to dedicate to actually doing work rather than suffering through getting to work.

At a company where I used to work, they have consolidated so much office space that there will not be enough desks for everyone who works there. So people will always be working from home. A former coworker who lives in New Jersey and is still in journalism (I “crossed over to the dark side” of public relations a few years ago), works from home two or three days a week. He’s running a financial magazine all by himself and he holds down a part-time job two days a week, but he’s getting it done.

There is definitely a benefit to a common work area and having face-to-face meetings that can’t be duplicated over the phone and email. But much of what many of us do at work each day can be done just as easily at home. Technology is only going to keep making that easier.

New York’s transit woes will not improve anytime soon. Everyone should work from home if they can. Ask your boss about it if you haven’t already.

Five people you should be allowed to beat senseless on public transit

Recently a mother was charged with beating a 71-year-old woman who criticized her rude manners and child rearing and a man was arrested for kicking a pregnant woman in the belly on a 4 train. Such savage assaults are not surprising, sorry to say. While people join in the moral hate of these accused, it begs the question: who does deserve to be beaten on our subways and busses? We agree that the pregnant and the elderly should be spared violence except under extremely rare circumstances. But there are certainly many for whom swift and destructive violence is richly deserved.

Below are modest descriptions of the five people who are worthy of vigilante justice.

People who bring bicycles onto trains. Does anyone have any excuse to bring a bicycle on a train, ever? This is your method of transportation. If you got caught in the rain, too bad. Read the weather forecast before you bring your two-wheeled throne of entitled ineptitude onto our train car. The worse I’ve seen was a guy with a motorized scooter on the train. A motorized scooter! This also applies to people who bring awkwardly large objects onto the subway. I’ve seen people bring all manner of inappropriately large items onto public transit during rush hour. Baby strollers are the most tolerable item since some mothers don’t have a choice as to when they travel. But a bicycle on the subway? With the exception of the rare bike race in town, there should be no such thing.

People who stand in front of doors or enter the subway before everyone leaves. I have often dreamt of investing in some sort of spinning blades on a stick that one can set on fire while pulling into the station. I feel with the right tools we could eliminate much of the population in my neighborhood of Flushing. No subway seat is so precious that you should surrender your dignity.

Rush hour panhandlers and performers. One should never give money to panhandlers at all as a general rule. Even the most sympathetic advocates for the homeless will tell you that the majority of cash you hand over to beggars is used for drugs or alcohol (giving food is another issue). But if someone is trying to walk through a packed subway car to collect money, then they deserve a knuckle sandwich and should appeal to their bleeding-heart suckers during a less-crowded time. I usually go out of my way to give money to performers. Musicians and other people who make our lives richer with their art deserve our support. The sensible performers would not walk through a crowded subway car at rush hour. They know to avoid crowded trains because they are considerate and good at what they do.

People who wear backpacks on trains and buses. If you wear a backpack onto a subway or bus, you are a jackass. Not only are you taking up too much space and making it difficult for people to move around you, you are putting your own personal belongings out of your view and at greater risk of theft. True justice would be to slice open these backpacks and allow the contents thereof to spill onto the floor. This may end up causing a stamped to grab these items, creating a greater disorder and inconveniencing law-abiding commuters. Also the authorities may take issue with a knife being used in this way. A good public prank would be to glue very large and garish dildos to these backpacks. According to the police, such acts are not vandalism and they’ll have no reason to report you to the authorities if you are caught in the act (note: not all police may take the same view as the slacker cops I encountered in Flushing).

Pole hogs and seat hogs. Unless you are a stripper performing in a strip club, you have no business putting any part of your body other than your hand on the subway pole. If you weigh 800 pounds and take up more than one seat, then OK, you’re doing us a favor not trying to stand on the subway and you’ll die of a heart attack soon enough. If you are a more regularly-proportioned individual and you are taking up more than one seat, then you deserve a boot to the face. Your luggage didn’t pay $2.75 to ride the bus or train.

Honorable mentions for New York street justice in transit: people who neglect to wear headphones while listening to music or watching videos, those clipping their nails on the bus or train, and anyone who stands on the left side of an escalator.

Our public transit will never be a cocoon of luxury and good tidings. We don’t need that. But some common decency and courtesy would go a long way. There’s nothing morally wrong with a little bit of “the old ultraviolence” on some of our fellow Big Apple denizens who weren’t raised with the same manners, I realize that these are but fleeting dreams. We cannot visit such extreme justice on all who deserve it. If we did so we would do nothing else. But let us join together in these sweet day dreams and get through our day the better for it.

Happy commuting everyone.

The kindness of strangers on a bus in Queens

Living in New York City for a long time can leave you jaded and expecting the worst of humanity. Actually, living anywhere on Earth for a long time can leave you with a pretty dismal view of the world. Sometimes there are times in city life that surprise you and give you some hope for humanity.

My wife was away all day this past Saturday, leaving me alone for the first extended period of time with our three children, all of whom are under three years of age. “Three under three” is apparently a very difficult thing to do. Having three kids in this day and age, especially for employed city dwellers, is a rarity. I have a lot of friends with kids and can only think of three of them that have three. Most have one or two. Raising kids is not easy but I’ll be damned if I don’t do my part. I’m going to keep trying until I get a son or until my wife kills me in my sleep.

Anyway, I could not sit inside with my children all day. It’s important to get kids out and about to see and experience the world lest they become agoraphobic sociopaths who play video games or spend all day on social media. So I bought tickets online to see The Cat Came Back: Stories and Songs with A Jazzy Twist at Flushing Town Hall, which is about a half mile from our home.

Too far to make toddlers walk and not blessed with a large enough parking lot to make driving an option, the best method of getting there was by bus.

In New York City, bus travel is at the lowest end of the social totem pole. It’s a deal breaker for many residents, which is why apartments are still somewhat affordable in our neighborhood and why our slice of the city hasn’t been hit with the same level of gentrification as those closer to the subway. Bus travel gives you all the crowded unpleasantness of a packed subway with the lurching frustration of sitting in city traffic.

But my two two-year-olds don’t mind the bus. My older (by one minute) daughter enjoys taking the bus and is downright disappointed and angry if we drive by car. The bus is an adventure and seeing new people and things. It means not being strapped into a car seat and being able to turn around in her set and look out the window. While to most adults it’s a confining mode of transit that makes you feel like a loser, to a little kid used to the constraints of our safety-conscious society, the public bus is a respite from the constricted life.

So I put our infant daughter in a baby carrier and walked across the street from our building to wait for the bus to take us to Flushing Town Hall. After waiting a while, a Q20 arrived. We were first in line but were waiting for a Q34. I mentioned this as I waived people ahead of us, and a fellow passenger told me that the Q34 doesn’t run on the weekends.

We got on the bus and people were very deferential and offered me their seat so I could sit next to our two twin girls, who are two and a half. I preferred to stand anyway, and tried to join the girls in “The Wheels on the Bus,” but they were too interested in looking at the world outside the bus to join me in much singing.

The bus driver was very nice to us, and made sure I didn’t miss my stop. At one point he left the back door open and said, “That door is for you!” but he wasn’t talking to me, but rather a fare beater who had snuck in the back at the stop. Anyway, people on the bus moved to let me sit even though I told them I didn’t want to. As long as the girls have a place to sit I’m fine. I prefer to stand on public transportation anyway.

The concert at Flushing Town Hall was good and the girls were patient for most of the show. By the time they got really restless and needed to be taken home, the show was winding down. It was a nice time and even though a lot of the folk tales were over the girls’ heads, it’s always good to expose children to culture and the arts.

On the bus back home, people were again very generous and helpful. Even though one old lady was crabby and told a man he didn’t belong in the elderly/handicapped seat next to her, people were nice to the guy herding three kids around. I emerged from what is usually a transit hell with a sense that human beings can be decent once in a while, at least towards small children.

News Flash: New York’s subways are horrible

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.

 

Mistaken for an Uber

Hank’s Saloon in Brooklyn was hosting a punk rock show celebrating the birthday of Mike Moosehead, one of the city’s most talented musicians. I was not going to miss it, even though the weather was horrible and the city was slow to plow the roads.

Driving cautiously over roads and highways caked with snow that had been churned by traffic to a grim grey slurry, I eventually found my way to Hank’s. I pulled up to the traffic light outside the hearty saloon and prepared to make a turn to look for parking.

Some young men outside the bar looked towards my truck and I thought I recognized them. One of them at least looked like a guy I know from playing in punk bands. They looked like they recognized me and approached me.

“Uber?” said the young man.

“No, sorry,” I said, feeling stupid, though I’m guessing he felt dumber. The cars that are Uber cars are usually newer and have a very clear and recognizable ‘UBER’ or ‘U’ sign in their window.

“Does Uber have pickup trucks?” I asked. The young man didn’t seem to know.

Uber, the online taxi service that allows users to summon and pay for cabs entirely online and without cash, does have pickup trucks, though they are rare in New York.

Being the resident old man in the office where I work, I do not have the Uber app on my smart phone. My wife has used it to secure a ride for her mother when the weather locked our truck under a sheet of ice a while ago. It’s a useful thing to have because you can take the mystery and risk out of whether or not you’ll get a cab. I rarely take cabs and I don’t trust Uber.

Years ago, when I spent more time drinking into the early hours of the morning in bars far from home, I wound up taking a lot more cabs. I enjoyed talking to the drivers, who are usually from a different part of the world, about where they are from and life in the city. I once met a Muslim driver from Pakistan with a long beard and traditional garb who had become an American citizen. He was heartfelt in his frustration at how extremists had come to define his religion in his adopted home.

The migration to online taxi hailing means trouble for New York’s yellow cabs, and the yellow cab drivers have only themselves to blame. Every New Yorker can recount a litany of horror stories about the difficulty in hailing and getting decent service from yellow cabs.

Yellow cabs will cherry pick who they take. Even though this is illegal, they will drive around with their ‘out of service’ lights on to avoid regulations. I have successfully hailed a yellow cabs only to have them drive away when they thought I had too much luggage. Drivers have been known to overcharge, tamper with meters, and otherwise cheat and nickel and dime their fares.

Online taxi service is a concept whose time is long overdue. We can rent cars online and buy plane and bus tickets online. There’s no reason calling a cab online shouldn’t be commonplace for everyone, and in a few short years I have no doubt it will be standard operating procedure.

Where Uber goes wrong however, is in its pricing. It runs pricing on a strict supply and demand basis and gouges its prices through “surge pricing,” so when demand goes up, pricing can go through the roof. Because the service is not cash-based and is charged to the customer’s credit card, people can be charged exorbitant amounts of money for what would normally be an inexpensive cab ride. Recently Uber quickly raised its prices in Sydney, Australia during a recent terrorist hostage standoff. The fare algorithm that Uber uses does not adjust for human decency.

Like other New York traditions, hailing a taxi on the street is one that is fading. Nostalgia will keep it alive for a good while longer, but technology has found a more reliable way to get people in and out of cabs. Like other New York traditions, there is good and bad about its loss, but it’s a loss nonetheless.

The MTA Has Snow Excuses

The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) is the blessing and the curse of life in New York. Our transit system makes the city a livable place considering its population density. If everyone who works in New York City drove to work, we would be in a state of surreal permanent gridlock.

What the city has seen over the last several weeks has been the MTA at its worse. While the weather has been cold with a lot of snow and ice, nothing we’ve seen this winter is without precedent. It snows in the Northeastern United States. A winter without ice and snow is a rarity. We can understand a lot of traffic delays in the ice and snow, but the train lines should not seize up the way they have over the last several weeks.

We can’t blame the city and state for the steps they took in the face of the January 26 blizzard. The authorities have to go with what the weather forecasters say and err on the side of caution. The forecasts were dire and while the storm didn’t amount to the “snowpacalypse” that was predicted, better safe than sorry. I managed to catch one of the last express trains anywhere in the system on the afternoon of the 26th apparently. The city banned all but emergency transit, including car traffic, after 11 p.m. that night.

Where I live in Queens, on Union Street in Flushing near where it becomes Willets Point Boulevard, is usually a heavily trafficked street. It is close to the Whitestone Bridge, near a shopping center and along three or four city bus routes. Even in the quiet of the early morning hours, it is usual to see regular traffic on the road. The night of January 26th saw the streets deserted in a very strange yet beautiful snowscape. I walked right up the middle of the street and stood right in the middle of the usually busy intersection of Willets Point Boulevard and Parsons Boulevard and so no cars moving anywhere. I did see two cars driving during the time I was outside, whether they were violating the travel ban or were emergency workers I couldn’t tell. They were civilian cars risking a fine and having an accident on roads that were by then heavily snowed and sparsely plowed.

But while the travel bans were quickly lifted, the transit system is still seizing up at the slightest hint of bad weather. The MTA operates in New York City with maddening inefficiency and malfunction. Commuters’ hearts regularly break when they arrive on their train’s platform to find it mobbed with people trying to board much-delayed trains.

I must take two of the most congested and delay-prone lines in the system: the 7 train and the 6 train.

The 7 train is actually among the higher-rated train lines by the Straphangers Campaign, which is a commentary on the MTA. The 7 train can only handle express service in one direction at a time, and that express service is often canceled or delayed. Every train is standing-room only when it leaves the Flushing-Main Street stop on weekday mornings. Trains on the 7 local line often pull into local stations so packed that no one can get on them. People try to push on anyway, passengers argue, and trains are delayed further. Conductors make obnoxious announcements blaming passengers for the delays the MTA caused.

During one of the more recent abominable mass delays on the 7 line, an umbrella on the tracks caused the entire line to go into mass chaos. An umbrella. I’m sorry, but if the worst thing that falls onto the tracks in a day in an umbrella, we should be lucky. Unless this was some kind of James Bond-type bomb umbrella that Al Qaeda managed to toss onto the tracks, there is no excuse for this. A neighbor of mine was stuck on a 7 train with no heat for two and a half hours.

And it’s not just the 7 line. That same evening almost all of the subway lines were facing massive delays. Other rail systems like the LIRR and Metro North were delayed as well.

This recent winter weather should not have wrecked our transit system, but it did. New York is in need of a massive transit overhaul. We can’t shut down at the first sign of snow.

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