Affordable Transit

Late Night with the 1 Train

Inwood Hill Park

Inwood Hill Park

I moved to New York City in the summer of 2002. At the northern tip of Manhattan I found a wonderful neighborhood to call home: Inwood. This predominantly Irish and Dominican community — still within the City that Never Sleeps — was a perfect place to hike with my hulking dogs through virgin forests and not a bad reverse commute to my new job in Westchester County.

Since the majority of my waking hours were in the burbs, I used the subway primarily on the weekends. At the time, Inwood had access to three subway lines: 1/9 and the A. The 9 bit the dust on May 27, 2005, but the 1 and the A still service Inwood as a local and express, respectively. I found my way around the city with relative ease, glad not to have to use a car to do errands and visit friends.

What I didn’t do, however, was take the A or the 1 alone after 10 pm. I had done so a few times early on, but by the time the train pulled out of the 168th Street station, it was usually just me and a few lone guys in a car for another four stops. And if the A train stalled before reaching Dyckman, as it often did (and still does since the end of the line is at 207th), I’d be stuck for an indefinite amount of time, wondering whatever possessed me to ride a subway alone at 12:30 in the morning. So I resorted to hailing yellow cabs (many of whom refused to take me, when they learned of my destination) and choked down the $35+ fare to get home without addled unease.

I stayed in Inwood for nearly 7 years, and they were some of the best of my life. So when I moved back to the City in 2014, I naturally returned “home,” but what I found was far from my old stomping grounds. What had begun slowly in the early aughts, was a fait accompli by 2014 and is what compels the New York Times real estate section to write article after article on the wonders of the new and improved Inwood. Chic restaurants replaced cornerstone diners, mom and pop storefronts lost out to mega banks, decades-old bodegas have been shuttered, and many long-time residents have been driven out by ever-increasing rents willingly paid by the influx of bewildered newcomers who up until January 2014 were desperately searching for their Starbucks skinny-mini, half-caf latte (alas, the closest was either at 181st or in The Bronx ). It’s the Brooklyn story, come to roost in the treetops of Inwood.

But street life isn’t the only thing that’s changed “way up here.” As more folks moved north but left their friends and jobs and entertainment south, the subway system began to feel the shift in transportation habits. There was a 28% increase in ridership (2.3 million annually) at the Dyckman Street A station from 2007 to 2012.  And, as with ridership across the system, the numbers continue to swell:

Average Weekday Ridership













2013-2014 Increase

+548 / + 8.3%

Dyckman St A subway
5,579 5,935 7,088 7,375 6,557 6,687 +130 / +2.0%

Average Weekend Ridership













2013-2014 Increase

+1,194 / +15.5%

Dyckman St A subway
4,759 7,773 9,753 9,142 8,140 8,366 +226 / +2.8%

This year MTA subway ridership hit a 65+ year record, and all indicators suggest the numbers aren’t going to drop anytime soon. I know of this increase because of the work I do, but I hadn’t really equated it to my daily life. Until recently. Until Tuesday, to be exact.

With a job in FIDI, I take the subway to work — alternating between the 1 and A — depending on MTA notifications of signal problems and derailments, which seem to be happening with much more frequency, but I was still relying on cabs for late night treks home, thinking those empty subway cars were still commonplace.

But everything changed on Tuesday night.

The 1/2/3 at 1045pm

The 1/2/3 @ 72nd, 10:45 pm on Tuesday

I’d just attended a concert at the Beacon Theatre and had planned on hailing a cab (it was close to 11 pm after all), but there weren’t that many to be hailed. And besides, the beautiful 72nd Street entrance was winking at me in the dark, luring me to its affordable transportation. I decided to follow what seemed an unusually large number of others heading to their next destination.

What I discovered was beyond anything I had ever seen (although several have subsequently told me this is a typical scene on the 1 at night – and the figures don’t lie). The platforms for northbound and southbound trains were packed with people. It wasn’t rush hour levels, but not that far off. And when the 1 pulled into the station, it was standing room only in the majority of cars.

I pushed my way in with fellow New Yorkers, still elated from a wonderful performance by Of Monsters and Men, and smiled to myself. Transit is alive and well in New York City, I thought. We’re all together, participating in this grand experiment playing out in five boroughs, and we are traveling together at all times of day and night.

And then, my reverie came to a screeching halt before we even approached 79th Street.

Alive and well?

Our rails, cars, and stations are so degraded that the Citizen Budget Commission estimates it will be 2067 before all repairs can be made. In response, Nick Sifuentes, deputy director at Riders Alliance, noted:

“Our crumbling subways are the result of decades of lack of investment in public transit. When we don’t have elected leaders who are willing to put money in our subway system, we can’t have nice things.”

Nice things would be nice. Indeed.

We’ve got a $28 billion 5-year MTA capital plan that has languished on a shelf, unapproved, for nearly a year – with a battle raging over how much the State and City should pony up — and where the monies will come from to fill the $13 billion gap. Our signaling system technology dates far into the last century, when a manual switchboard routed telephone calls. It’s taken nearly a century for the 2nd Avenue line to be completed (and it’s still not). And our subway experience on any given day can go from mediocre to hell in less time than it takes a subway rat to carry a slice of pizza down a flight of steps.

Straphangers Campaign recently released their annual Subway Report Card, and it ain’t pretty.

Straphangers Campaign

Straphangers Campaign

For any of us. But as a straphanger on the A and 1 trains, I was less than pleased to see my trains’ rankings. The A is near dead last on breakdown rates and regularity of service, while the 1 is slightly better. But in the end, it doesn’t really matter which line is your primary mode of transit, because we are all in this together. And the breakdown of one train can have grave impacts across a multitude of lines — it’s hard to forget the 14 line debacle in March or the one just a few days ago that left A,B,C,D commuters scrambling when rails were discovered to be damaged.

With travel speeds 8.5% slower in Manhattan’s Central Business District from 2012 to 2014, it’s no wonder New Yorkers are choosing other modes of transportation to get to work, school, concerts, and to visit family and friends. Ridership will continue to escalate.

Or maybe not.

The 1970s and early 80s were some of the worst for the MTA subway system. Unlit cars covered in graffiti, broken rails, high crime, and degraded stations pushed people out of the subways and into cars and taxis. Fare revenues dropped, and so did the ability to service perhaps the City’s greatest asset. It’s comeback is in large part due to the genius of then-MTA Chairman Richard Ravitch who in 1981 pleaded with Governor Carey, Mayor Koch, and the State legislature to provide badly needed funding to get the system up and running again.

A 2012 report by the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA notes the improvements actualized by the 5-year capital program:

“Today, it seems almost incredible that in 1982 subway cars had a mean distance between failure (MDBF) of a mere 7,186 miles; it is now over 170,000 miles. This dramatic increase in MDBF was aided not only by new rolling stock, but also by upgrades to shops and the introduction of a scheduled maintenance system. Ridership on subways has risen 66 percent and on buses, 30 percent; and major felony crime in the subways has dropped an astonishing 82 percent. Likewise, the commuter railroads’ performance has soared since 1982. The MDBF for both the LIRR and MNR have improved by an enormous 708 percent and 502 percent, respectively, over the period. This metric particularly jumped in 2003 when the new M-7 cars were put into service. Ridership escalated as well, with LIRR increasing 14 percent and MNR 69 percent. Increased capital investment also produced many environmental improvements such as the addition of air conditioning to trains and buses, the removal of graffiti, and the substantial reduction in track fires.”

And yet, in mid-September 2015 the millions of us who rely on our subways to be punctual, clean, safe, and efficient await the powers that be to determine how and when the next 5-year MTA capital plan will be funded.

Over 65 regional business associations, trade unions, clergy, civic leaders, transportation and environmental advocates, and good-governance organizations have had the answer for quite some time: the Move NY Fair Plan — endorsed by seven editorial boards and supported by dozens of State and City elected officials.

Former MTA Chairman Richard Ravitch recently appeared on NY1 to discuss the state of the 5-year capital plan:

“I have a high degree of tolerance for people in politics, so I don’t blame the governor or the mayor for being mindful of the political impact of what they’re suggesting. I think it’s a shame that so much energy — and so much news coverage — has been devoted to the battles between the two of them instead of why in hell they’re not sitting together and talking to Carl Heastie and John Flanagan and getting a law passed and a revenue source created that will fund the necessary capital expenditures. That’s the tragedy.”

Let’s get the discussion rolling …


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