Leonard Quart: Growth aside, MTA still stuck in traffic

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NEW YORK >> Aside from walking, by far the best way to get around the city is to take a bus or subway. Either one is cheaper and often quicker than taking a cab.

Between the two forms of mass transport, the subways, though more crowded and less comfortable, are much more reliable and faster. I take a bus when I'm not in a hurry, and I want to leisurely gaze out the window at life on the streets and the neighborhoods, and see what new towering monoliths are going up throughout Manhattan. But the subway gets me from the Village to Park Slope in 25 minutes, and to Lincoln Center in 20. There is just no beating that.

The subways are also much more orderly and user-friendly places than they were during the city's financial crisis in the 1970s. Then they were a virtual hell: windows, car exteriors and interiors and stations were covered in gaudy graffiti and name tags — blatant symbols of the system's disorder; trains derailed, and track fires erupted; aggressive panhandlers roamed litter-filled cars; violent and petty crime proliferated, creating intense unease among the passengers, who figuratively closed their eyes to their surroundings; and groups of homeless people settled with their tattered bags of possessions in stations and tunnels.

Ridership increasing

As a result of the system's deterioration, a subway ridership that had been falling (caused partially by the flight of the middle class to the suburbs), declined precipitously. That's true no longer. Ridership exceeded 6 million swipes on 15 weekdays in 2015 — a phenomenal achievement for a system that carried only 3.6 million daily customers just 20 years ago.

The growth was seen across the city in all boroughs and on all lines, with the highest percentage increase in neighborhoods seeing rapid residential development and population increases, such as Bushwick in Brooklyn and Long Island City in Queens. The ridership has grown because of population growth, but also because of a booming (albeit glaringly unequal) economy, decreased unemployment, and most importantly, a much less repellent subway system.

Of course, that's not to say that the system doesn't contain a slew of problems. According to a recent report, it will take more than half a century for the MTA to fix all the problems with its 468 subway stations. In addition, the pressure of increased ridership during rush hours has left platforms crowded and trains bursting at the seams, with the overcrowding causing delays.

There is some hope that the too long awaited completion of the first stage of the Second Avenue subway will ease the crush. Other stopgap measures are proposed, like putting staff on platforms to stop riders from clustering in the middle and from holding doors.

Despite the increase in ridership, subway crime has declined. Still, violent crimes occur. One of the most horrific ones — an attack on a woman with a machete on a crowded Brooklyn subway train — took place not many weeks ago. In addition, incidents of sexual harassment and molestation continually take place.

The subway system has one notable achievement — its newest subway station (its 469th) has been completed, and extends the number 7 line to 34th St.–Hudson Yards on the far West Side, where a whole new neighborhood is being constructed. Among other proposed plans to modernize the subway, Governor Cuomo has stated that he plans to install Wi-Fi in all stations by the end of 2016, and the Metro Card will be replaced by a digital fare system by 2018. And the MTA capital plan called for renovation of 20 stations.

The city bus system is another matter. New York was the first American city to use motorbuses for public transit. Today, nearly 5,000 buses operate in all five boroughs, covering almost 3,000 miles of routes (though there have been cuts on a number of routes).

As someone who takes buses at least three or four times a week, I must say they continually arouse my irritation and even rage, especially in cold weather when one is left waiting for buses that sometimes don't even bother to show up. They also often come in bunches because of inadequate dispatching and route-management practices. And New York's heavy traffic, intensified by bus lanes often illegally glutted with cabs, bikes and other vehicles, slow buses down to a crawl. As a result, New York has some of the slowest average bus speeds in the country.

Buses vs. Uber

If we could create a high-performing bus network it would have a positive impact on the economy, reduce pollution and save on energy — the ultimate green answer to streets taken over by ever-growing legions of Ubers. It would also increase ridership, and be a service to the city's large elderly population.

The MTA has taken some positive steps by creating a Select Bus Service (10 routes so far) that ride on semi-exclusive lanes, and mandate off-board buying of tickets. The one I use on 2nd Avenue has increased the frequency of service along 1st and 2nd Avenues and sped up the on-boarding process, making the bus service more attractive, and increasing ridership.

Despite much still to be done, buses provide the chance to view one's fellow passengers in close-up. One person I observed yesterday, was a huge, 300-pound homeless man in soiled clothing, holding an Investor's Daily in one hand, and a Danish that he kept munching on in the other, all the while carrying on a non-stop monologue about the CIA and its plan to kill Obama. An interesting 20 minutes, but it didn't balance off the long wait for the bus in freezing weather.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com


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