19 evidence-based solutions to New York City’s subway disaster

It doesn’t have to be this bad.

New York City subway train
A 1 local train on an aboveground portion of the lineMTA/Wikimedia

On September 25, the board of New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority approved a $51.5 billion plan to improve subways, buses, and commuter rail. If implemented, the funds could modernize the subway signal system, replace old buses, upgrade commuter railways, and repair bridges and tunnels. There are some big issues waiting to be solved with that cash infusion: home to 8.5 million people and host to another few million commuters each day (in addition to some 65 million tourists each year), New York City has 99 problems and congestion is all of them.

That's not to say things haven't been worse. Despite record ridership in 2017—during what many New Yorkers dubbed the "Summer of Hell"—the inflation-adjusted budget for the MTA was roughly the same as in 1994. Persistent mismanagement by the state, which operates the MTA in the city and a dozen other counties, meant outstanding debts ate up almost 17 percent of those funds. Performance plummeted, with just 65 percent of weekday trains arriving on time—the worst such statistic from any subway system in the world. And that was just what was going on underground.

Up above, rideshare apps like Uber and Lyft were pulling people out of the public transit system and into private, low-occupancy vehicles. On any given day, the average bus was only in motion about 50 percent of the time. 25 cyclists died on the city's car-centric streets in 2017. And traffic in the borough of Manhattan meant average vehicle speeds were (and are) just slightly faster than pedestrians on foot. In a city this big and dense, getting from point A to point B was never simple. But this was something else.

Over the past two years, the city and state have taken steps to repair the region's decimated transit infrastructure and reduce congestion with the aid of a $836 million emergency investment. On-time performance for the subway recently reached a respectable 80 percent (though most cities around the world consistently operate in the high 90s). But bikers are still dying and rideshares continue to clog the streets. Clearly, the bulk of the job lies ahead.

Tens of billions of dollars might just do the trick, but only if the infamously mismanaged transit system puts it to good use. Here, PopSci evaluates a number of strategies—some already being considered by the MTA, and some not—that could get the city moving again.

Improved signal controls

The MTA's top priority is overhauling the subway's signaling system, which monitors the movement of trains on a track and manages the space between them. Many lines still rely on machinery from the 1930s. According to the New York Times, that means millions of riders are dependent on "fraying, cloth-covered cables" to get around.

This antiquated system relies on fixed-block signaling, which forces cars to slow down when they move into buffer or occupied blocks on the track. It's imprecise—only the driver knows exactly where their train is, or how fast it's moving. It requires an incredible number of transponders and cables to orchestrate, so there are hundreds of points of failure. And it limits the number of trains the MTA can run at any given time. In 2017, signal issues contributed to 13 percent of subway delays.

In its new capital plan, the MTA asks for $7.1 billion for signal modernization. This includes funds to upgrade six additional lines to a new signaling system, called Communications-Based Train Control. The computerized infrastructure will allow operators to see the speed and location of all trains at all times. That allows conductors to bunch trains closer together without risking collision, thereby moving more people at peak hours.

A and B cars

One way to accommodate more riders would be to make subway cars longer. The only problem is, longer cars wouldn't align with the finite length of station platforms, leaving some passengers trapped inside. Craig Avedisian, a lawyer, was one of eight winners of the MTA's 2018 "genius challenge" for his proposal to divide existing trains into A/B cars. Instead of completely redesigning platforms (an arduous task), he proposed creating A and B cars that would only open at their corresponding stations, allowing riders to easily see and understand which cars they needed to enter and exit from. Avedisian's calculations suggested these elongated trains could increase capacity by 42 percent.

Automated arrival announcements

In New York, it’s unusually difficult to figure out what station you’ve arrived at. On some older trains, arrivals are announced by the train conductor, over the loudspeaker. But those can be hard to hear, and visual cues can be difficult to find or interpret, especially for visitors from out of town. Some trains have more automated systems, but none compare to the Chinese subway, which automatically announces, in Mandarin and English, the name of the next stop as the train departs the station, as it arrives, and as it sits at the destination.

Spacious platforms

The MTA catalogues hundreds of incidents each year involving subway riders who fell or jumped onto the track or were hit by oncoming trains. There are a variety of factors at play, but the subway platforms themselves are partly to blame. According to the New York Times, the Union Square L-train platform is just 24 feet wide—sandwiched between two exposed tracks. (For comparison, one of the system's newest stations, at Hudson Yards, is 34 feet across.) "In some areas, the platform is so narrow that it is nearly impossible to avoid stepping on the yellow safety strip," the Times wrote. Carving out more space underground is challenging, but one short-term solution could be to reclaim the space under staircases currently occupied by bulky storage closets in many stations. This would give people more room to safely congregate as they wait for the next train.

Safety screens

Another way to make platforms safer could be to place screen doors in between passengers and the tracks. Subway systems around the world, from Paris to Sydney, use these screens, which automatically open when the train has pulled into the station, and close as it’s ready to depart.

New York City subway entrance
A subway entrance showing which lines are available from this stationCorey Ryan Hanson/Pixabay

Accessibility

Less than 25 percent of the subway system is accessible to people with physical disabilities—or people lugging strollers or suitcases, for that matter. "New York City is just stuck," says Susan Dooha, the executive director of the Center for Independence for the Disabled, which is currently in the midst of several lawsuits against the transit authority. "They now need to bite the bullet and do it."

Presently, people with limited mobility can only really travel between the few stations with elevators, and then find other forms of transportation, like a bus, to get to their actual destination. Sometimes, though, they get off the train only to discover the station elevator is out of service. They're then forced to get back on the train and try for another stop, call the fire department to carry them out, or, Dooha says, even crawl up the stairs. Faced with substandard services, a woman died in January trying to maneuver her child, who was in a stroller, down the subway steps.

In its new capital plan, the MTA earmarks $5.2 billion for station accessibility. Specifically, it plans to add elevators and ramps at 66 stations, and ensure that customers are "no more than [two] stations away from an accessible station" at any point in the trip. "We appreciate movement forward," Dooha says, but the plan is "too little, too late." The center will continue its lawsuit in pursuit of a "binding resolution" that would give a court the right to hold the MTA accountable.

4G service

As of January 2017, there was free Wi-Fi in all New York City subway stations. But train cars? Not so much. New York could take a hint from, London, Moscow, and Tokyo, which already have or are currently outfitting their tunnels with 4G coverage.

Special cars

Of course, not everybody wants to listen in on your phone call. The MTA could consider adapting Japan's controversial women's-only cars into something better suited to the needs of New Yorkers. Quiet cars, where people aren't allowed to talk, or family cars, where children are allowed to scream, could make passengers of all stripes more comfortable.

Modular cars

The Chinese company CRRC, the largest rolling stock manufacturer in the world, also won the MTA's genius challenge for its investment in developing a light-weight modular train car prototype. Materials like carbon fiber could help reduce train car emissions, while modular designs would allow for faster repairs, as mechanics could more easily replace or remove the relevant parts.

Open cars

In New York City, subway trains are made of a series of discrete cars hitched together. That means to move from one train to another while the train is in motion, a customer has to pull open a heavy door, enter into the open air of the tunnel, open and go through the next door, and break the law—not to mention risk their life—in the process. One solution would be to replace existing cars with continuous trains, like those in use in Toronto or Berlin. This could reduce train overcrowding—the number one cause of subway delays, according to the MTA—by allowing people to spread out more efficiently over the entire train, instead of stuffing themselves like sardines in a sealed tin.

Professional pushers

Another Japanese trick? Oshiya, or pushers, who forcibly compact riders into the train car—and force people off to keep the train moving on time.

Bike lane improvements

An essential feature of reducing stress on the subways is making other forms of transit more safe and accessible. Over the next five years, Mayor Bill De Blasio plans to spend $58.4 million on improving bike safety. The goal is to eliminate thousands of parking spots and replace them with a cumulative 150 miles of protected bike lanes. (Currently, many cyclists are on the road alongside cars.) The plan also calls for the city to redesign 50 particularly problematic intersections. Biking advocates say it only scratches the surface of the city's needs, but it's a first step in making space for cyclists.

Art

Cosmetic fixes won't address underlying systemic issues, but ugly subways don't do anything to help morale. The MTA spent $4.45 billion its new 2nd Avenue line, $4.5 million of which went to artwork, including installations by Chuck Close and Jean Shin. Such investments contrast sharply with the cracked tiles and moldy puddles that blight the rest of the system.

Shifted work schedules

In many cities, congestion is worst at “rush hour”—the period each morning and evening when the bulk of commuters are going to work and school, all at the same time. Some transportation engineers have theorized that creating a staggered work schedule could ease traffic by spreading that rush out across the entire day.

Genevieve Giuliano, a transportation expert at the University of Southern California, says people already do this naturally—heading in early for important meetings, or working with their employers to create a flexible work schedule that lets them commute at odd hours. But she thinks organizing this strategy at a city-wide scale would be difficult.

In 1988, she co-authored a paper on an unusual real-world experiment: researchers assigned every public employee in Honolulu, Hawaii a 30 minute window in which they would go to work, and a 30 minute window in which they could return home. Instead of everyone arriving at 8 a.m. or leaving at 6 p.m., people trickled in and out. It seemed like a great idea, but the impact proved minimal, shaving just 3 to 4 minutes off the worker's commute.

This staggered work strategy could be even more difficult in New York City, Giuliano says. Due to the sheer volume of people, New York’s rush “hour” is already an all-day affair, and the impact of shifting your trek by an hour would likely be small.

“I would ask, is that an argument to do nothing?” says Bill Eisele, a senior research engineering at Texas A&M’s Transportation Institute. Congestion is such a complex problem, he argues, so cities should throw everything they have at it. If NYC isn’t going to incentivize off-peak commuting, perhaps individuals and businesses with the ability to restructure their own work hours should give it a shot.

Telecommuting

Working from home sounds like a panacea: logically, fewer people on the road would mean less congestion. But there could be a surprising economic downside. In July, the governor of Massachusetts proposed a tax break for companies that move to telecommuting; it would amount to $2,000 per employee per year, up to $50 million. But local transportation advocates told the Boston Globe that this solution doesn't scale. When commuters pay for a bus ticket, they're funding public transportation out of their own pockets, so the cost to the state or local government goes down. If people stopped commuting, they wouldn't be paying into the system, but the government would still be paying out through tax breaks.

Tunnel maintenance robots

Another MTA genius award went to Bechtel Innovation for its proposal to put robots (or "robotic systems," anyway) to work in the subway tunnels. The company argues that advanced machines could perform simple tasks, like drilling holes or looking for signs of decay. Similar technology is currently at work in the Tube, London's subway system. Proponents argue the robots would improve the safety of human workers, who currently do this work, and speed up productivity by taking smaller tasks off their hands.

New lines and expanded track

While other world cities have seen prodigious subway expansions, New York City's system stopped growing around World War II, according to CityLab. In the 80 years since, there have only been a handful of extensions, including three stops to the Jamaica line of 1988, one stop to the 7 line in 2015, and three stops Second Avenue in 2017.

But the list of proposed extensions has never stopped growing. Advocates of the full Second Avenue line want funding for a route 16 stations long, for example, and Staten Islanders want to connect their single subway line to the New Jersey PATH train. By expanding service, the MTA could alleviate pressure on existing lines, and give residents shorter and easier routes to work.

Autopay

The MTA began rolling out autopay options on buses and subways in May. Riders can now tap-to-pay through the OMNY system, which accepts a variety of digital payment options (including wallet apps like Apple Pay) installed on your mobile phone. The transaction is supposed to be easier and faster than older methods, where a fumbled card-swipe can quickly turn into a turnstile bottleneck, but it's not yet available to all riders. Discounted fares, like those for students, aren't yet eligible for tap-to-pay. And people who don't have bank or credit cards or smartphones can't participate yet. The MTA plans to address these problems by releasing a reusable OMNY card (similar to Oyster Cards in London or Orca Cards in Seattle). It will allow people to load a cash balance like existing MetroCards, but still use the tap-to-pay function. Unfortunately, it's not due until 2021.

Congestion pricing

Whether it’s bicycle lanes, better sidewalks for pedestrians, or a complete overhaul of the subway system, infrastructure costs money. So who’s paying? At least part of the funding, says Sam Schwartz, aka “Gridlock Sam,” comes from congestion pricing.

For decades, Schwartz and other activists have pushed the city to tax drivers for their contributions to clogged streets. In 2017, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his support for the measure. The city's first tax on vehicles went into effect in February. All for-hire cars beneath 90th Street in Manhattan must pay a small fee—$2.75 for rideshare vehicles like Uber and Lyft and $2.50 for taxis—for every trip within, into, or out of the zone. A second measure, to tax all cars beneath 60th Street in Manhattan, will be announced in November 2020, and go into effect the following year. Schwartz estimates the charge will be in the range of $12 to $15 per vehicle each day the driver enters or exits the zone.

The benefit of congestion pricing is two fold. First, a portion of these tax dollars will be devoted to public transportation. “$50 billion would not be possible without congestion pricing,” Schwartz says of the MTA’s sizable capital investment plan. Drivers are literally paying to support and expand bus and subway services and bicycle lanes. The second perk is that congestion pricing reduces traffic. People aren’t so inclined to take a Lyft when it comes with a substantive surcharge. By taking cars off the road, Schwartz says, city officials are not only improving shared services, but reducing emissions and accidents.

New York will always be a bustling city. But with these investments and innovations, its citizens might one day get to work on time, and in one piece.