On the Platform Inequality in Service on the New York City Subway

Income inequality in the United States has hit record highs in recent years. New York City’s disparity especially has been climbing: according to the United States Census Bureau, Manhattan has reached astronomical levels, the likes of which only faced elsewhere by developing countries like Sierra Leone and Namibia. If New York City is a reflection of the United States and its current state of affairs, the subway is a reflection of New York City. With crumbling infrastructure, little expansion efforts, and an administration created to divert responsibility for such issues, the subway is a harrowing portrait of the injustices that the government has not only prolonged, but profited from.

Before we talk about the issues within the New York City subway, we have to explore why exactly they’re so prevalent. The modern lack of funding for the subway can be traced back to 1968, when Mayor John Lindsay championed his Program for Action to revitalize and expand the New York City subway to bring the decades old system into a new era and accommodate the growing outer-boroughs. To make these improvements, he planned to raise fares. Of course, this was an unpopular course of action. Governor Rockefeller took advantage of the public dissent and had the state take over commuter trains, the subway and subsidize the improvements with the tolls on the bridges and tunnels, creating the Metropolitan Transit Authority. This plan ultimately failed as state officials used it to hold influence over the city, and fares and tolls alone were not enough to maintain the subway.

Today, the subway stagnates under the same clash between state and city government. Both Governor Cuomo and Mayor DeBlasio have introduced plans to improve service, but assert that the other’s jurisdiction pay for it. DeBlasio funds his part by catering to real estate moguls, who developer Jed Walentas says “build things where the subway works, and build far fewer things where it doesn’t.”

The Regional Plan Association is an organization founded to better the quality of life for New Yorkers. Their recent analysis of failing subway infrastructure gave a laundry list of much-needed improvement plans. Considerably slowing train traffic are an outdated signaling system from the 1920s and convoluted end of line tracks with sharp turns and heavy damages. The subway also proves to be quite hazardous: rampant track fires, noise pollution comparable to jet engines, and lack of boundaries between the platforms and the tracks contribute to hundreds of health problems and deaths each year. Also inevitable with current groundwork: flooding, caused by lack of waterproof walls and ceilings and resulted in several line and station closures after Hurricane Sandy. As these complications worsen, ridership continues to double each decade.

It’s evident that system-wide, the subway needs work. However, its failings are undoubtedly felt most by lower and middle income New Yorkers. While delays are prevalent on every line, they’re still most commonly seen in the outer-boroughs in working class neighborhoods. At the intersection of poverty and disability, less than 20% of subway stations are wheelchair accessible, most of those being express stations in Manhattan. Indeed, fixes to the aforementioned problems are concentrated in Lower and Midtown Manhattan. Yorkville residents on the new Second Avenue subway can leisurely head downtown to their spin class on an uncrowded, reliable, on-time train with little incidents and with no ringing in their ears.

The New Yorker recently released an infographic displaying the income equality among different subway lines. The line with the greatest difference between the highest and the lowest median income was the 2 at $191,844 between Chambers Street in Lower Manhattan and East 180th Street in the Bronx. The 2, as reported by The New York Times, is also the line with the most delays, being late almost 70% of the time.

A sonification of the 2 train’s income inequality by Brian Foo

Because tracks are so regularly maintained in Manhattan, there aren’t many maintenance-related closures. It doesn’t present much of a problem there regardless, somebody stranded at Chambers Street 2 station can easily walk across town to catch the R to their office. Somebody stranded at East 180th will likely miss work. In Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, it’s increasingly common to see your station taped off and plastered with signs directing you to the nearest shuttle bus, which rarely run on time, and due to city traffic, run at a fraction of the speed of the subway.

This of course presents the issue of the placement of the subway lines themselves, which create so-called “transit deserts.” In the 1900s, when the subway was first being constructed, New York City’s population was concentrated in Manhattan and routes were accordingly planned. Today, even though Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx have more than five times the population, these lines haven’t expanded. Today, the only train that runs outside of Manhattan besides the Rockaway and Franklin Ave shuttles is the G, but not for lack of effort.

As New York grew and people increasingly spread north and eastward, Mayor Lindsay’s Program for Action proposed many new lines to accommodate the demographic change. Northeastern Queens line was planned to run from Woodhaven Boulevard to Queens College to Little Neck. A Southeastern Queens line was planned to run from Brooklyn to Jamaica to Locust Manor. A super-express Queens Boulevard line was planned to run at 70 mph from Bellerose into Manhattan. As we’ve discussed, state intervention led the Program for Action to go belly-up, and so it sacrificed middle class Eastern Queens’s commute to rebuild Manhattan stations.

Of course, these areas still have slow, but functional bus service, and can more easily afford a car or a monthly LIRR ticket. Harder hit by want of outer-borough lines, are the working class New Yorkers. Lower income people mainly work in industries like retail and healthcare which are evenly distributed throughout the city. According to the RPA, 61% of working people who live in the outer-boroughs work in the outer-boroughs, and job growth there is rising at twice the rate of Manhattan. These jobs are mostly clustered around JFK Airport, Hunts Point, SUNY Downstate Medical Center, and the Sunset Park waterfront, so there isn’t a reason why more adequate service can’t be provided aside from negligence. Dollar vans, cabs, ride-sharing services, and buses aren’t as reliable as trains as traffic congestion makes them slow and spotty in service. In addition to their high prices, cabs often discriminate against Black and Hispanic riders, while ride-sharing apps like Uber increase price based on usage, which make them unfeasible for daily use. While President Obama issued the city a grant to build low-income housing near mass-transit, it has limited reach and cannot begin to fix the overwhelming disparity in subway service.

One plan to serve these areas is the Triboro Rx, which makes a loop from the Brooklyn Army Terminal to Co-op City in the Bronx. It would make use of underused freight lines, unused LIRR tracks, and the Hell Gate bridge. There are obvious complications with electrifying and building old and new tracks, but much of infrastructure is already there. It would have approximately 100,000 daily riders, and lessen their commute by an hour. Another proposal is DeBlasio’s famed light rail plan, which has come under scrutiny for its lack of proper infrastructure and projected inability to subsidize its maintenance with MTA fares, and will likely be pushed back again, or be scrapped entirely.

As income inequality continues to grow, the subway continues to decline. Politicians focus on serving the interests of wealthy residents and real estate developers rather than the working-class people who make the city function the way it does. The only way to fix the issues within the subway is a widespread commitment to community and public works.