Leonard Quart | Letter From New York: Troubled subway system remains a unifying force

Letter From New York


NEW YORK — The NYC subway system is in crisis. Long waits at stations continue to enrage New Yorkers, and trains still break down too often. Signal equipment dating to the Great Depression continues to create emergencies in the most heavily used rail system in the country.

A new subway action plan proposed by recently appointed Transit chief Andy Byford is expected to pour $836 million into fixing the system. So far, officials have spent about $333 million on repairs and hired an additional 1,100 workers. About $253 million have gone toward operating costs and $79 million for capital spending. Still, only minor progress has been achieved in some areas, and no major improvement in reliability. Many passengers leave an hour early so they won't be late for work because they have to deal with incidents like a switch breakdown at one of midtown Manhattan's busiest train stations that threw the subway system into utter disarray for the morning's commute. There also have also been 85 subway other incidents this May, compared with 75 in May 2017. Ridership is also down, and there have been reports of more and more wage earners willing to spend money for Ubers to get to work on time, with the sharpest declines in ridership in both outer-borough and off-peak service.


Moreover, subway construction costs are by far the highest in the world. The first phase of the showcase Second Avenue subway on the Upper East Side of Manhattan — just three stations so far — cost $2.5 billion for each mile of track. It's much more expensive than what London spends, with it having built 48 miles of new underground rail at $31 billion.

And no meaningful integration between the subway and suburban transit exists, as it does in Paris and London, where one can use a travel card that covers all modes of transportation. The NYC subway's problems clearly have profoundly deep roots that will be difficult to overcome.

It's something more than a system characterized by the bungling, infantile wrangling and neglect, like deferred maintenance, of the city and state's politicians and the mismanagement of overpaid MTA bureaucrats.

A recent book, "International Express: New Yorkers on the 7 Train" (Columbia University Press) by urban sociologists St phane Tonnelat and William Kornblum (a friend), provides an in depth portrait of the "International Express," the 7 train that starts at Main Street in dynamic, vibrant Flushing (one of the city's largest areas that are populated by East Asian immigrants and their second generation progeny) and terminates in the glittering and sterile new city of money being built in Hudson Yards, Manhattan. The book is a skillful mixture that includes the authors' penetrating observations of subway behavior, and interviews with 7 train riders, as well as detailed accounts by immigrant youth of their subway experience.

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One of their prime premises is that public transport brings together daily people from different races, ethnic groups, and economic level — a microcosm of the diverse city as a whole. And the 7 train, with its predominant immigrant character, is the apotheosis of that diversity.

Kornblum and Tonnelat explore how the "fleeting interactions on the 7 train" help shape the immigrants' newly shared urban identity and aid them to become New Yorkers. They assume "that sharing the experience of daily life in the city, including subway ridership, builds a common stock of competences and attitudes" for the city's inhabitants. For example, they learn how to police themselves to maintain some semblance of order on the trains.

The authors write about the ethnic groups that get on at each station along the 7 line — Chinese and Koreans get on first in Flushing while Hispanics do so in Corona. South Asians enter at Jackson Height's 74 Street/Roosevelt Avenue Station, and at succeeding stops other groups get on, such as Filipinos and white passengers transferring from the LIRR, and then those who live in the new luxury towers in Long Island City.


It's a crowded train, but according to the authors, these riders from varied ethnic groups find a way to tolerate each other and achieve an "implicit social agreement." But for newcomers to the city the acquisition of new values on the subway —"reading the many different social cues and situations" — is necessary to adapt to the city's institutions and make a real start here.

In the chapter on the 74 Street/Roosevelt Avenue Station the authors analyze how different subway workers affect the station's social order. The police who patrol the station operate out of a predator and prey perspective (with the majority of those arrested black and Hispanic) that both creates and assuages stress among the riders. The authors also provide the voices of women riders who respond in a variety of ways to male harassment, including "talking out loud and asking respect for one's privacy."

Yes, we know the subways are in deep trouble, but a book like "International Express," without romanticizing the system, is able to provide a more positive way of looking at subways as a community's lifeline.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com


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