A couple of weeks ago, there was a flurry of stories blaming New York subway problems on overcrowding. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) presented data showing that the number of delays caused by crowding had tripled since 2014, while the number caused by track maintenance or signal problems had remained relatively constant.
The MTA also helpfully pointed out that the number of trips taken on the subway had grown from 1 billion a year in 1990 to 1.8 billion in 2015, while the number of miles of subway lines and subway cars had remained relatively constant. That sounded persuasive, but the Antiplanner was suspicious. This explanation conveniently shifts the blame from MTA’s mismanagement to subway users and also invites the solution of giving MTA a lot of money to increase capacities–a solution MTA would be very happy to implement.
Besides, New York subway ridership first reached 1.8 billion way back in 1926, when the system had many fewer route miles than it has today. Construction of the Independent system, which is more than a quarter of the total, began in 1932 and wasn’t completed until 1940. Subway riders in 1926 complained the trains were crowded, but delays due to that crowding weren’t a significant problem.
The system was pretty much complete by World War II, and for several years after the war, ridership exceeded 2.0 billion trips per year. Again, passengers might have complained about overcrowding, but delays weren’t considered a problem. Ridership slowly declined from 1950 to the 1970s and hovered around 1.0 billion trips from 1975 though 1993, after which it increased again to its current level. So the system should be capable of handling 1.8 billion trips a year.
So why do MTA report indicate that overcrowding is the cause of so many delays? It turns out that, according to an agency insider, “by policy, each train delay must be logged with an official cause and that when no cause is formally identified, they often write down ‘crowding’ as a default catchall rather than a real explanation.”
The real problem is, as the Antiplanner has stated before, deferred maintenance. According to the same source, multiple collisions led the city to restrict speeds on bridges to 25 miles per hour and to reduce train accelerations from 2.5 miles per hour per second to about 1 mile per hour per second. Signaling systems are archaic and work rules make maintenance far more expensive than it ought to be. These are only some of the problems described in a detailed article in Vox.
This explanation, which is much more reasonable than the overcrowding claim, leads to a very different set of solutions. MTA should clear up its maintenance backlog, not increase system capacities. Of course, getting the system back to a state of good repair will increase capacities, but not by building more track but by making sure the existing track is effectively used. Journalists should have been more skeptical of MTA’s self-serving overcrowding explanation.