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Fixing New York's subway is about keeping America great

New York City’s subway is an abomination.

Better than it was 40 years ago, yes, but it’s still the worst major subway system in the world. 

Why is that, and why should you care?

Let me answer the second question first.

Commuters make their way on and off the L subway at the 1st Avenue station in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

You should care because the New York City metro area is the biggest in America, with 23 million residents or some 7% of our population, so you may be using it yourself. Some 4.3 million people take the subway every day (it had been as high as 6 million) with 1.7 billion rides taken last year, so it’s quite likely that a family member or co-worker may use it as a tourist or on a business trip. 

But even more than that—and like it or not—New York as America’s biggest city, is the gateway to our country. Last year, 65 million visitors came to  New York—13 million from other countries. In many cases the subway is how folks who arrive in America; businesspeople, immigrants, vacationers, and even celebrities and CEOs, first see and get around our country. 

It’s also a huge business. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (the state agency that runs the subway) has a budget of $17 billion, with about half of that directly allocated to the subway (the rest goes to bridges, tunnels and other rail lines.) The MTA pays out billions annually to suppliers and vendors to small- and medium-sized companies and biggies too like Montreal-based Bombardier which is under fire for a $600 million order of faulty subway cars.

And speaking of faulty, that’s another reason to pay attention to the NYC subway system even if you don’t live here. The subway is a case study in, well, how not to run a railroad. Its foibles offer up myriad lessons in what not to do in business, (we’ll get to that in a bit.)

Granted the NYC subway has come a long way since its 1970s, “Ford to City: Drop Dead”* apocalyptic nadir. Back then the subway was a rolling mugging parlor, rife with graffiti, broken glass and hooligans. Crime was rampant and vigilante Guardian Angels patrolled the trains. (This amazing slideshow gives you an idea.) By June 1975, ridership had fallen to levels not seen since 1918.

It took years for the MTA and city officials to pull the subway out of this hole. Even by 1990, there were still 17,000 major crimes on the subway, including 20 murders. But by 2017 there were zero murders (only one in 2018), and the New York Times reports there were only about 2,500 major crimes (includes murders, rapes and robberies) in the system last year.

So yes, despite significant setbacks in the middle of last decade, the NYC subway has become better over the past several decades. But here’s the problem. While it’s light years away from horror movie conditions (the portrayal in last year’s “Joker” movie is actually pretty spot on), the NYC subway is still the worst in the world. 

With all due apologies to Andy Byford, president of New York City Transit (NYCT), who’s improved things since he was brought in two years ago, it’s inferior to systems in Moscow and Beijing. Way worse. (True, I’ve never been to Moscow, but the pictures/videos are stunning and I’m sad to say that my wife, who was there recently, reports that it’s fantastic.)

I say sad, because while you may expect authoritarian regimes to have better subways in their flagship cities, I don’t. I’m still operating under the belief that we needn’t have a dictatorship to make the trains run on time.

So what exactly makes NYC’s subway the world’s sorriest? Let me count the ways. (And bear with me. You’re reading a story written by someone who rides the subway at least two times every working day. I’ve got a lot to get off my chest.) 

Here goes: The filth and the dirt. The howling, screeching noise. The crazy jolting, bumpiness and sudden stopping The cataclysmic and torrential waterfalls (really) and flooding when it—get this—rains. The fact that you can’t hear the announcements half the time. The fact that announcements aren’t made half of the time. The changes in service. The endless construction. It’s too hot. It’s too cold. The insanely dangerous overcrowding. (Times Square station, 1,2,3 platform, anyone?) The people who listen to loud music without headphones (not allowed but never enforced.) The people who eat (smelly) food (also not allowed but never enforced.) The rats. All the rats.

And the delays. The endless, mind-numbing, unexplained delays (“we have congestion ahead” means what exactly) that come randomly yet relentlessly, like night punishment in a North Korean prison camp. (Of course, the remarkably creepy subway in Pyongyang runs way better than New York’s. And no, I don’t want to move there.)

I didn’t even mention the panhandlers and homeless people [yes they need help] on the trains in New York. That’s worse too. (Although the BART in San Francisco is closing in fast.)

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 12: Passengers wait for a train to leave the station at the Hoyt-Schermerhorn subway station, April 12, 2018 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. A fight between customers on a morning A train caused backups through the morning rush. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Each and every one of these factors are worse than those in any other major city subway I’ve ridden (which includes Beijing, Hong Kong, London, Paris, Shanghai, Tokyo, and Washington D.C., never mind Boston, Atlanta and San Francisco.) My colleagues at Yahoo Finance—almost all straphangers—are in unanimous agreement and have expanded my comparative set to include dozens of other cities including Singapore, Berlin and Barcelona. (Tokyo rates No. 1, btw.)

Sure New York’s MetroCard payment system works OK, but again, we’re lagging other municipalities that use apps, multi-use cards or an honor system (er, the latter is probably not a good fit for NYC.)

I know that at 245 miles, NYC’s is one of the most extensive subway systems in the world. It has the most stations and is one of the oldest. It’s also open 24/7. But should any of  that be an excuse? No.

And here’s the very worst part. It’s that we New Yorkers—and I’ve been riding the train for seven decades (!) and regularly for 35 years—accept all this. We tell ourselves that we’re tough New Yorkers. That we can take it. We think this is the way it has to be. That this horrible reality is the expectation. 

In part this is because we have no recourse. What are you supposed to do when a train skips your stop unannounced? Yell at the conductor? (Sadly I’ll acknowledge doing that once, embarrassing myself.) Also something I’m not particularly proud of is trolling New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who oversees the MTA, on Twitter. But how else to occupy oneself stuck on a train for 45 minutes? (Fact: I missed a flight at LaGuardia a few years ago, stuck in a subway tunnel to Queens for half an hour.)

We have been trained—imprinted like Konrad Lorenz’s geese—to waddle along like this is all normal.

Well it isn’t normal, (go to any other city), and we shouldn’t accept it.

Dysfunction and malfeasance

I should interrupt my rant to say that if you’re visiting New York, don’t worry. It’s OK. The subway is safe. Crime isn’t an issue any more. In all my years of riding with millions of people I’ve only seen one crime—a chain snatching, (excluding numerous instances of fare evasion.) What may happen, dear visitor, is that you might get wet. Or you might freeze. And most of all, you might not get to your destination on time. 

How did the NYC subway get so bad? I’m not going to get into this chapter and verse—though it is fascinating—as volumes have been written. The New York Times has done some great work here, here, and here, laying it out. But I do think it’s worth delving into the top-line failure, because it so pointedly speaks to dysfunction and malfeasance that can creep into any organization.

  • Lack of accountability. In 1968 the state of New York took over the MTA, which means the mayor of New York doesn’t control the subway, though technically the system is owned by the city and is leased to the state. (Follow?) So Albany-based Governor Cuomo points fingers at Mayor Bill de Blasio and vice versa. 

  • Decision-makers don’t actually use the product or service. How often does the governor ride the subway? I didn’t hear back on Twitter.

  • Bloated salaries, overtime costs and retirement benefits. Billions and billions of dollars have been spent here. The Times reports that “subway workers, including administrative personnel and managers, make an average of about $155,000 a year in salary, overtime and benefits,” There’s a living wage and then there’s pork barrel and feather bedding

  • High costs. Thanks to overly-generous deals with unions and contractors, construction costs for NYC subway projects are five times the international average.

  • Leverage. The MTA has borrowed many billions of dollars, so much so that the New York Times reports that nearly 17% of the MTA budget goes to paying down debt.

  • Diverting funds. Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers used revenue earmarked for the subway for other purposes. Over the years this amounted to billions.

  • Deferring service. When the system was in good shape, funding for maintenance spending was slashed. Shockingly, this leads to subsequent periods of poor conditions. Today World War II-era switches, decade-old track and obsolete cars all need replacing.

None of this is lost on NYCT President Byford, who will be looking to invest out of a new $50 billion MTA capital campaign, tens of billions of which will be for the subway. Byford knows what he has to do. It’s just that he’s trying to turn back decades of institutional rot and impropriety.

Truthfully, it’s not realistic to expect the NYC subway can become the world’s best. At least not for now. But what millions of us want, is something better, much better, than we have today.

Really want to keep America great? Fix the New York City subway!

*This refers to the infamous front page of the October 30, 1975 Daily News which read: “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD” after President Ford gave a speech denying federal assistance to spare New York City from bankruptcy. It has become an emblematic moment in the city’s decline.

This article was featured in a Saturday edition of the Morning Brief on January 11, 2020. Get the Morning Brief sent directly to your inbox every Monday to Friday by 6:30 a.m. ET. Subscribe

Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @serwer.

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