Tag Archives: mta

Joe Lhota’s Smart Pragmatism at the MTA

MTA Chairman Joe Lhota’s interview on this morning Brian Lehrer show (listen here) wasn’t exactly earth shattering: he talked about the potential fare hike scenarios, expressed his desire to make the MTA into the best transit system in the world (again), and offered some vague visions of the future. These interviews don’t really rise above local politics, though you’d be forgiven if you considered New York City transit policy a regional issue with national implications. Mr. Lhota was speaking to the daily riders who are worried about rising fare costs while simultaneously trying to convince them that the MTA is still one of the most effective transit systems in the world, not to mention one of the cheapest in the post-industrial world.

But then Joe threw some in this corner of the blogosphere a pretty significant bone: he talked about lengthening stations as an alternative to significant capital programs! And modernizing signal structures!

I’ll be honest that I’m not sure how lengthening stations improves service (I’m assuming Second Ave. Sagas or Cap’n Transit probably has a better idea than I do) but the fact that Mr. Lhota offered up something that is not only pragmatic but also achievable in such a hostile funding climate was sort of revelatory. Listen, everyone wants more service and better service and cheaper service, but at the end of the day that just isn’t a reality. Yes, Albany has stolen hundreds of millions of dollars from dedicated MTA coffers, and yes, City Hall hasn’t increased transit funding since the first Clinton administration, but unfortunately there is no financial capacity to do anything additive outside of the Second Ave. subway.

Modernizing the MTA with incremental improvements like fixing the signaling structure (which would make trains come more frequently for all you rabble rousers out there) is a great step in the right direction and shows that Joe Lhota understand his constraints and is able to work within them with elegance and nuance. We’re all upset about the fare hike but I’m ok with an extra quarter going towards real improvements in the system.

Now if only Albany would stop messing everything else up for transit riders we could actually get somewhere.

Joe Lhota Takes the Wheel at MTA Today

Joe Lhota, former Giuliani budget director and Dolan/Cablevision VP, begins his tenure at the most complex transportation system in the country today. Here’s an excerpt from the MTA press release (via NY Observer and NYC Transit Forum):

The MTA is the engine that drives our economy and makes our way of life possible here in New York, and we have a responsibility to operate our service as efficiently and effectively as possible. The MTA is facing a number of difficult fiscal and operating challenges, including funding our vital capital program and continuing to improve service in tough economic times. My focus in the next couple of months is understanding this organization from top-to-bottom, and listening to our employees, customers, and community leaders as we work together to shape an agenda and improve this vital service for all New Yorkers.”

Well, we’re starting off well since Chairman Lhota acknowledges the paramount economic and social importance of a solvent and operable transit system and goes straight into admitting that the fiscal situation the MTA faces in the near and longterm may be solved with painful solutions. The biggest challenge to Mr. Lhota’s career at the MTA may be his inescapable battles with upstate lawmakers and constituents who see their rural tax dollars being funneled to that most urban of social services (the irony of course being that the majority of the tax revenue generated in the state of New York comes from the City and, subsequently, the bulk of the funding for projects initiated in Albany and the rest of Upstate). He also has to address the issues surrounding operations and, as his predecessor Jay Walder understood clearly, part of balancing the budget is cutting service and raising fares, an unpopular, unfair, but ultimately the only politically palatable move the MTA can make (of course raising tolls on bridges and installing a congestion charge could eliminate the need for either of those actions… but I digress).

Chairman Lhota’s first day on the job make be a lot of publicity and sound bites but I think that, combined with an already stalwart (and progressive) team installed at the DOT and Planning Department, Lhota may just be able to make good on his pragmatic promises. It may be naive to trust the words of what is an essentially political position, but faith has to start somewhere.

As Richard Davey Prepares to Take Reign at MassDOT, a Lack of Continuity at Northeast Transportation Authorities

For some reason, no one wants to run transportation agencies in the Northeast. The departure of managers like Jay Walder, former MTA general manager, and the impending vacancy of MassDOT’s Jeffrey Mullan –apparently over a pay squabble with Governor Deval Patrick—shouldn’t come as a surprise: running these systems is a big headache. There’s never enough money to run subways and buses on time, not to mention the harsh winters that accelerate the wear on buses and stress on stations while simultaneously draining the budget. Clearing tons of snow doesn’t come cheap.

Walder’s replacement hasn’t been found yet, but looking for a luminary with a résumé like his —he’s credited with introducing the Oyster card in London and pushed for a tap version of the MetroCard  (coming in 2015, hopefully)— is going to be left up to a task-force headed by New York’s Lieutenant Governor Richard Ravitch and is quite the order.  Commissioner Mullan’s job description is broader but relatively easier; more highways, less subways. His replacement is Richard Davey, a sort of Jay Walder-lite, and he is leaving his post as the chief of the MBTA for the commissioner’s desk at the Massachusetts Transportation Building, across the Boston Common from the State House.

 As Richard Davey Prepares to Take Reign at MassDOT, a Lack of Continuity at Northeast Transportation Authorities

Jay Walder, Former MTA Chief (Copyright NY Daily News, Xanthos)

Davey isn’t taking over until September 1st, and he’s inheriting a mess of disappointment, anxiety, and general disdain for the Bay State’s infrastructure. Commuters from the West hate the tolls, Bostonians don’t like the prospect of bus and subway fare hikes (there hasn’t been one for the past five years), and there are parking lots doubling as thoroughfares in the suburbs to the south and north. Davey’s office is a crosshair of discontent making a typically easy target for public griping –public transportation—even easier to find.

Reform is the status quo now at MassDOT

-Richard Davey

The news isn’t all bad for soon-to-be Commissioner Davey: the shape of the Massachusetts economy is sturdier than the country as whole and unemployment numbers are far below the national average at 7.6%. That means that while Bay Staters may dislike any impending cost increases to their daily commute, they are in a better position to afford it. That won’t be reason enough to refrain from protest should any combination of an unholy trinity occur: toll increases, fare hikes, and gas taxes. These strategies are not levers for the sake of pulling: transportation costs for single drivers commuting from the suburbs outweighs costs for those taking public transportation as a proportion of income and the savings incurred by carpooling would make any frugal commuter from Framingham or Swampscott squeeze in the backseat between Ashley from accounting and Jackson from HR.

 As Richard Davey Prepares to Take Reign at MassDOT, a Lack of Continuity at Northeast Transportation Authorities

Richard Davey, left, Incoming MassDOT Commissioner with Governor Deval Patrick (D-MA), center. (Copyright Governor's Office)

Davey is also appreciably realistic and honest about the state of transportation infrastructure in Massachusetts (bad), the implications that has for the economy (also, bad), and the brand of strategies that need to be in play in order to shore it up (rough). But Davey has to equivocate like any holding political office–and running buses and trains in a major American city is a unique political act. “Reform is the status quo now at MassDOT,” he told WBUR’s Meghna Chakrabarti in an interview last week, referring to that department’s efforts to streamline operations and find savings before it went looking for new cash. Remaining mum on anything outside of a general fare increase is a shrewd but obvious reference to Governor Patrick’s failed bid to add $0.19 to the state’s paltry $0.235 gasoline excise tax, a move that would have raised $500 million annually and gone a long way towards disarming the debt bomb ticking away at 10 Park Plaza.

Overseeing a public transportation system, as Davey did for a little more than a year, is slightly worse than a thankless job. Subway and bus riders assume –just like pedestrians and motorists—that there infrastructure lacks considerable complexity in providing service at a high level and low cost. Straphangers have taken on an odd brand of roundabout logic regarding transit: the subway has been there because it’s always been there and –this is critical—it will never not be there. Complaints about efficiencies and delays sound more like an amateur chef criticizing the saltiness of a dish at Le Cirque or O Ya; a problem with a blunt, linear solution. The reality is overwhelming and complex – unless, of course, maintaining personalities, budgets, complaints, politics, and equity while simultaneously attempting to keep one’s job sounds like the managerial equivalent of making grilled cheese. Riders often neglect the basic thermodynamic logic behind a public transportation infrastructure: it is a system, and systems are inherently inefficient. Davey will, hopefully, go a long ways towards “squeezing every ounce of savings [he] can out of the organization”, but more importantly (and potentially more hopelessly) he can also educate riders, drivers, and walkers on what exactly goes into his job, a position that has remained a black box for most American cities.

Of course, these are still difficult times to get anything done in Massachusetts transportation when there is still the echo of overdrawn budgets reverberating through the Big Dig tunnels. It is harder still when you consider that the design and implementation dysfunction at that very same project may push the bottom line even higher. Davey discusses that project with the same tenor a cheater might save for a particularly terminal infidelity: “Was it mismanaged? Yes it was. Was it overpriced? Absolutely. But you know what, we have to manage the situation and that’s what we’re going to do.” Admitting institutional mistakes, even if the missteps were on someone else’s watch, is especially satisfying coming from a transportation official where colossal successes and failures are almost always cut from the same cloth, and only the former ever find an owner.

Was it mismanaged? Yes it was. Was it overpriced? Absolutely. But you know what, we have to manage the situation and that’s what we’re going to do.” -Richard Davey 

Chakrabarti’s interview with the commissioner-nominee, his first after Gov. Patrick’s announcement, centered on the one question he says will define his tenure: “What kind of transportation system do we want?” The crystalline rhetoric (what other answer could one have besides “good” or “great” or “really great”?) isn’t pointless. If Davey’s position is geared towards educating Massachusetts residents on the subtle and unglamorous issues facing infrastructure then he will have not only taken his predecessor’s path to its logical extension but also conducted an exhibition in bureaucratic pragmatism, a task only slightly more simple than fixing the Green Line.

Trains on Your Schedule

Getting around in cities all over the world has remained relatively the same over the last half a century: we get picked up by buses or subway cars and, after a few stops and the inevitable delay, we disembark and step onto well-stamped concrete or pavement. The evolution of public transportation -outside of the meteoric rise of information technology- has been a boring, straight line, but the systems themselves, those systems cannot be reduced to linear conclusions. Transit maps, while a feat of utilitarian beauty (and now, interactive dynamism), are views from 30,000 feet where lines are perfectly straight and bank at distinct angles rather than gradual turns. That level of analysis can’t define rider demand at the individual level and demographic mapping from sources like the Census and Immigration Bureaus aren’t granular enough to predict demand sources on an individual scale.

mta kick vign maps 1024x500 Trains on Your Schedule

Demand based transit planning has always been a conundrum for the luminaries at transit planning administrations across the country. Transit theorists borrow a term from economics in calling public transit demand “lumpy” because it faces peaks, plateaus, and nadirs on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. More buses and trains in the mornings and afternoons, less in midday. The lumpy economic theory is good for broad analysis. There are obviously more riders going to and coming from work in cities that have large populations using transit to get to work and most of them arrive around 9 AM and leave around 5 PM. In cities like Boston where a major demographic population is students, the schedules have more flexibility: some students have their first class at 10 or 11 AM —oh, how I miss being a student— and leave their designated zones much earlier or much later than their professional counterparts.  Still, typical demand based model are employed: 9 and 5 are peaks, all other times are not.

A potential 3rd way for transit planning may exist at the crossroads between internet startups and industrial ingenuity. The two paths represent a divergent means to similar end: provide a consumer a product while altering traditional precepts concerning supplies. The dissolution of boundaries between supply and demand allowed Japan to become a behemoth in automotive and electronics manufacturing and spurred some business savants to base a multi-billion dollar industry off the collective desires of the American public.

Japan’s reinvention of Fordism-era stock rooms, dubbed the “just-in-time” or JIT economy, allowed a land-scarce nation to become the lynchpin of Asian automotive production. Instead of storing parts onsite and paying housing fees for things that may not be needed for days or weeks, the pioneers at Toyota designed a system where parts were delivered only as they were needed. The desired effect is a streamlining —see: less costly— of supply chains and almost non-existent onsite storage costs, a strangely high cost item for auto-manufacturers. This is where we can see the mercurialization of supply but the true abstraction of demand comes from a team of stateside innovators.

The emergence of demand based services like Groupon and Living Social aren’t based on novel economic ideas driving consumers. For consumer demand sites that use a “trigger” to determine when a deal goes on and when it doesn’t —Groupon requires a given amount of people purchase the “groupon” before it is actually offered, hence the playful moniker— the concept is tangentially and, potentially, unconsciously based off the keystone economic theory of market equilibriums. One caveat to this theory is that corrective forces for a glut of demand, which typically include prices increases because when more people want something they’re rationally apt to pay more for it, don’t find a home in these companies; prices for the “groupon” remain flat for the duration of the deal.

 Trains on Your Schedule

What does that have to do with public transportation? Unless you’re riding SEPTA or some of the older systems in Europe and Asia, you now use a card, not a token, to pay your fare. Those cards produce time stamped records of riders and generate volume records that feed into a central database and those receipts are used for the demand models that have been discussed earlier in this essay. What if, instead of those ridership statistics (displayed with graceful practicality in the National Transit Database) going towards long-term demand models they were applied dynamically and geared towards deploying buses and subway cars where they were most needed any time of day. Riders would swipe, tap, or insert their cards and, for the purposes of illustration, the mercury inside a sort of demand thermometer would rise until a train or bus is deployed on its efficient track or route. Instead of subway cars perpetually packed at 5 PM because of linear deployment schedules, there would be a smoothing of the deployment process coupled with real-time ridership numbers.

Would the difference in operating costs run expenses past the burgeoning weight of MTA salaries and benefits? If there was a chance to run fewer trains or buses due to a dynamically produce demand model, would Jay Walder be able to balance his books a little easier?

Broad brushes never end in masterpieces for transportation planning. To say that all we need is a Groupon-based transit-on-demand system is ill-intentioned simplicity and may end up damaging routes that don’t serve very many and at the same time those that need the most. Equality will always be the foil to efficiency and pulls that turn to pushes are inevitable when the only options you have on the table are fare hikes, layoffs, and service cuts. There is opportunity, though, for a dynamic alternative where instead of using swaths of populations as our starting points, we begin the process with a single rider swiping a single card riding a single route. We exist at the center an ever-rising pinnacle of innovation, not just with technology but also in ideas. Transportation planning has not just been a footnote to those advances; it’s been near the center, where it belongs.


Cool Concepts | Charles Kumanoff and the Free Subway

Transformative ideas in transportation are rarities and often lack the earthshattering impacts that advances in other sectors do. Technologies bound forward, of course, the development of the automobile, closely followed by mass produced aircraft changed the architecture of how we travel and the velocity of our lives in general. Those were ideas separate of roads and rails though, feats of human engineering that changed the way we picture infrastructure as an auxiliary effect rather than an instantaneous shift. Open roads existed before Ford; blue sky existed before the Wrights.

Circumstances, both in the economic situation that many metropolises find themselves in as well as the expanding lines of traffic that citizens, have forced ingenuity and crazy, scary, completely unheard of ideas are becoming increasingly attractive. New York City faces a debt burden of billions and traffic, while not mirroring the levels of Moscow and Mexico City, still strangles mobility. It also houses its share of creative, often unreasonable ideas to attack issues with boundless impacts and reason is exactly what a man like Charles Kumanoff lacks.

Kumanoff is a Harvard trained mathematician who turned his skills towards traffic theory once the appeal of applied numbers lost its glint. He never lost his passion for obscure and risky quantitative analysis though, and by peering into the books of every relevant transportation statistic from some of the most complex systems in the world Kumanoff thinks he has a solution for New York’s mounting issues: make public transportation free.

The idea is a feat of molecular gastronomy: deceivingly simple to consume while scientifically confounding. Kumanoff believes the now-defunct congestion pricing plan proposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg could have changed the landscape of the city significantly if the price points were nearly insurmountable rather than just a nuisance. Charging the majority of drivers who commute downtown every day —typically to more lucrative careers than their subterranean counterparts— $20, $30, $50 would create mass transit utopias with a peppering of the rich who could still afford to pay a premium to drive themselves. Those fees, along with the omnipresence of subsidies, would eliminate the need for transit fares and the masses would rejoice.

Before you start throwing your Metro Cards out the window you should know that Kumanoff’s idea has received little attention outside of pedestrian advocacy groups and dismissive smiles from transit kings like Jay Walder, the CEO of New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority. Politically, the idea is a non-starter with representatives from wealthy suburbs voicing the concerns of the well heeled as well as Upstate where transformative ideas for the Metropolitans sound the alarm of disproportionate state funding.

We’re not quite there yet. Ideas that challenge convention, and in this case serve as pure iconoclast, are dismissed effectively and sometimes prematurely. There are ideas that are not dispatched cleanly though; a botched administrative surgery perhaps. Kumanoff’s idea, a compact death knell like a particularly shrill whistle blow, has only been muted and ignored rather than cut off. Cities like New York will need fresh looks at their mass transit system as long as billion dollar debts exist and service cuts and fare hikes become more and more unsavory. Kumanoff’s ideas, as wild as they come, may not be the whole answer but he’d say they are certainly part of the equation.

NB: For an excellent piece on Charles Kumanoff, check out his essay in Wired magazine.


Charlie Goes to Bed Early

Boston’s subway system (“the T”) closes somewhere between 12:30 AM and 1 AM starting up again around 5 AM. It’s only 4 hours, but it’s a big deal to the people that use it, especially for those between 18 and 30.

Just so the 297 million Americans who don’t live in the Boston area know, it’s a bar culture up here. Bostonians, and urbane New Englanders in general, are a self-conscious bunch and there are floating theories as to why: insecurity springing from their neighbors to the southwest, the harsh, salt-stained winters, or maybe just the general ethnic homogeneity. Clubs, typically cathedrals of self-worship, just haven’t made a dent in the mainstream drinking community up here. Bars close at 2 AM, and from the Keystone soaked streets of Allston to the, um, Leffe washed cobblestones of Cambridge, the city spits out a few thousand revelers every night into an unprepared transit infrastructure.

 Charlie Goes to Bed Early

So why isn’t the T open 24 hours? It has everything to do with track, and a concept that is novel to Bostonians: “express”. Express tracks are what allows New York’s subway system to run 24 hours a day, utilizing reduced service instead of no service. This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when you think of those extra rails as simple expediters and that’s because they’re not.

Express tracks are an ancillary, providing riders with a faster way to get to work but also supplying transit managers an alternate route for traffic in case of a disabled train, station emergency, or general repairs. Boston doesn’t have them. And for those of us that have experienced “express” on the Green Line, the conflation of  speed and service just doesn’t jive with the MBTA logistics structure. There you have it; the reason the T can’t run 24 hours. Scream it from the Prudential Building, please.

 Charlie Goes to Bed Early

And that’s what we’re stuck with: a subway system that doesn’t cater to the drunk and privileged because the original city planners who introduced the United States’ first trolley car system didn’t realize that not adding a parallel set of tracks would hinder the social lives of pseudo-urbanites who inundate Boston every weekend and drive home drunk because the subway needs to be fixed so that a wide spectrum of incomes can get to work in the morning. For shame.