Category Archives: Mass Transit

Meanwhile, Beyond These Borders….

Earlier this month, I went to a professional conference in London.  One of my immediate observations is that while the US has been in the economic doldrums for the last few years, much of the world has dusted itself off and gotten back to work.  The presentations at the conference are about new and bigger infrastructure improvements going on in cities all over the world… except in the US.

What happened?

On the first day, one of the presenters told the story of the Docklands Light Rail, which was built to revive the disused Docklands to the east of London.  The system opened in 1987 as a two lines that ran single cars.  It was enormously successful: today there are seven lines that run 2- and 3-car trains.

Meanwhile, Detroit has been puttering about with the idea of a Woodward Avenue light rail line.  They were going to build it, and then they decided to run buses, and now construction has begun on a line expected to carry about 1 million passengers/year when it opens in 2016.  (The Docklands, in its first year, carried 17 million, and now carries five times that.)

To be sure, there’s an obvious difference: the Docklands are just east of central London, a dynamic business district that is thirsting for more space.  The Woodward Avenue line is in… Detroit.

But the Docklands story was one among many.  What are we doing wrong?

One easy answer is: Obamacare.  All across the US, employers have been cutting staff and hours in an effort to escape the law’s mandates.  Meanwhile, people all over the country are getting sticker shock over the insurance premiums they now have to pay themselves.  Not exactly a recipe for a booming economy.

But the problem is broader than that….

Arthur and August for Mayor

Arthur and August

About three weeks ago, two kittens, later christened Arthur and August, interrupted subway service on the Brighton line in Brooklyn.  NYCT staffers shut off power not once, but twice, and stopped train movements in order to retrieve them.  (They’ve since been adopted.)

The next weekend, the Republican candidate for Mayor, Joe Lhota (who since won his primary and is now the Republican candidate in the general election in November), who previously ran the MTA (the umbrella organization for mass transit in NYC), noted that he wouldn’t have interrupted subway service for kittens.

That was a foolish thing to say.  The issue isn’t the kittens: it’s the passengers, one of whom might take matters into his own hands and attempt to retrieve the cats himself, possibly getting hurt or killed in the process.

In another time, NYCT might have sent two guys with orange vests and flashlights to chase after the cats between trains.  They would have left the power on, so that one guy would chase after the cats, while the other would watch out for trains.  But by current rules, that’s unacceptably dangerous, so now they stop the trains and shut off the power, and what was a minor event turns into a major production.

Joe Lhota, in spite of his remarks, will probably get my vote this November.  The alternative is Democrat Bill deBlasio, who was nowhere in the primary race until he started running campaign commercials featuring his 15-year-old son.  (DeBlasio is white; his wife is black; his son is appealingly halfway, very telegenic, with a surprisingly deep voice.)

DeBlasio is running as a traditional Democrat: raise taxes on the rich and spend it on government goodies.  He says that it’s time for a break from Republican Mayors who ran the city for the past 20 years.  (And gave us a city that works, with crime a small fraction of what it was in the 1980s?)

For my part, I’d vote for Arthur and August if they were on the ballot:

  • They’ve shown that they have what it takes to survive in the big city.
  • They don’t stop when they get frisky.
  • And they won’t raise taxes.

Sandy, Day 0

Governor Cuomo directed the public transport to shut down, and as I write this, the last train has gone by my window.  For how long?  Nobody knows.

I’ve thought about disaster preparations, and always been stymied by the thought: what am I preparing for?  I’m worried that, in the longer term, the economy will become unglued, with shortages and widespread power failures and civil unrest and God knows what else.  How do I prepare for that?  If I arm myself to protect my property, isn’t that a lost cause to begin with?  (Besides the fact that getting a pistol permit for one’s house in NYC is genuinely difficult.)

But what I’m preparing for this time is much simpler.  I expect that my family and I will be stuck in the house until Wednesday. I don’t expect damage to my apartment: I live in a stout concrete building.  I don’t expect flooding to affect the building, although there probably will be street flooding nearby.  Cable TV is the most likely utility to fail, although it held up when Irene hit last year.  A power failure is possible, but unlikely.  Water or gas failure is implausible.   (New York City’s water is delivered by gravity, and restarting the gas after it had been shut off would be such a major production that it would take something catastrophic to get it shut off in the first place.)  The latest weather maps suggest a total of 4″ of rain in the city over two days: nothing the sewers haven’t handled before, so I don’t expect trouble there.

My wife and I went to the supermarket to pick up some final items.  The store was busy for a Sunday, but mostly normal.  The shelves were being restocked, and we were able to find what we were looking for.

I get ham sandwiches from a local deli for lunch.  They have about twice as much meat as usual.  Like me, they’re expecting not to do business for a few days.

“We need water,” my wife remarked.  We have a case and a half on hand, but I’ll let her exercise her paranoia.  The Lowe’s sells cases of water for $4. She also wanted some garden items for her house plants.

Heading back from the Lowe’s, I was buttonholed by Steve the barber.  He has a tiny shop on Ninth Street that doesn’t get much business because the subway station nearby has been closed since March.  I’ve been running around like a maniac these last few months, and haven’t had time to go for a haircut.

“Do you think it’s the end of the world?” he asked me while clipping.

“If it’s really the end of the world, do you think I’d bother with a haircut?”

No, the world is not a more dangerous place than it was 15 years ago.  We’ve just been led to believe that it is.   And if this turns out to be the end of the world, or the end of New York City, at least I’m looking sharp for the occasion.

I was going to write about how we’ve wimped out: can we expect now that every storm will come with a state of emergency and a subway shutdown?  But after dinner, I find a Web site with an ’emergency preparedness checklist for perfect storm Hurricane Sandy.’  By the standard of the list, I’ve failed miserably.  I have nowhere near enough food or water stored; I haven’t boosted my intake of superfoods, immune-boosting herbs and nutritional supplements; and I have no way to defend the house against the marauding hordes that will come if there is an extended power failure.

Well, we shall see….

Subway Conductors with Tasers?

A New York State legislator has introduced a bill that would enable bus drivers and train crews on the subway and commuter railroads to carry Tasers to deter assaults.

The news report struck a nerve for me: a long time ago, when crime in New York City was at least twice as bad as it is now, I was a subway conductor.  At the time, conductors were required to watch the outside of the train move out of the station for a distance of three car lengths.  Many people cringed at that aspect of the job: you’re hanging out the window, uniformed, a target.

I had the job for a year, traveling under some of the worst neighborhoods in the city, and emerged from the experience pretty much unscathed.  I got spat on a few times, and simply washed it off at the end of the trip.  Someone tried to swipe my hat once; they failed.  And the most painful experience came when someone threw a pad of postcards at me.  Back then, some ads in the subway included pads of postcards for prospective customers to write in for more information.  When someone throws one at you while you’re on a moving train, it stings.

It was fun to do for a year, although I wouldn’t have wanted to spend the rest of my life at it.  Perhaps it was just because I was in my early twenties and felt indestructible, but the job didn’t seem very dangerous as long as you kept your wits about you.

Would I have wanted to be armed?  Absolutely not.   I don’t believe anything good would have come of it.

If transit workers had Tasers, for every bad guy subdued, there’d be at least five frazzled passengers zapped because their bus driver was having a bad day, ten fellow workers Tased in crew room hijinks, and probably a hundred passengers intimidated into silence.

It’s a bad idea.  Unfortunately, it’s been introduced in the New York State Legislature, where bad ideas never die.