No one is cutting 24-hour subway service, but let’s talk about it anyway

The mayor called 24-7 subway service a ‘birthright’ as the RPA’s Fourth Regional Plan kicked off a debate over the MTA’s approach to modernization.

Every generation or so, the Regional Plan Associate releases a major vision for the New York City metropolitan area and the ways its residents travel. The third Regional Plan, released in 1996, included calls for the Second Ave. Subway, East Side Access, and a streamlined transit hub at Fulton St., projects we know and love (or love to hate). Not everything becomes a reality — the 1996 plan also included calls for a one-seat ride from Lower Manhattan to JFK Airport and the Triboro RX circumferential line — but the plans serve as a blueprint for years’ and decades’ worth of discussions. So when the RPA unveiled its Fourth Regional Plan last week, the moment was something of a watershed for the next few decades’ worth of transportation plans.

Or at least it should have been, but one part of the RPA’s Fourth Plan stole the headlines. In it, the RPA may have proposed, to some degree or another, curtailing some or all 24/7 subway service. It was a vague, off-handed mention that that should have been clarified before the plan saw the light of day, but it cut at something New Yorkers believe to be sacred. Even if only approximately one percent of subway rides occur overnight, you can pry our 24-hour, seven-day-a-week subway service from our cold, dead hands. But as complaints about subway service the whole rest of the time mount, something has to give.

The spark to this fire was a brief mention of a plan to close, well, something at some time that arose on page 120 of a 374-page report [pdf] in the section on “accelerate the adoption of modern signaling systems.” The MTA’s need to quickly replace its collapsing signal system is hardly controversy; this paragraph was:

Guarantee track access and extended work windows. Track work is complicated and expensive on a 24/7 system. Closing the subways on weeknights and/or for more extended time periods would create more opportunities for track installation and testing of the equipment—and reduce costs. Only 1.5 percent of weekday riders use the system between 12:30 am and 5 am. The overwhelming majority of people who ride the subway during the daytime would benefit from the better, more reliable, cleaner and better-maintained system that weeknight closures allow. Of course, whenever lines are shut down, the MTA will need make sure that riders are not left stranded. New bus service should be provided to mimic subway service on traffic-free streets, and with shorter waiting times than today’s overnight subway service.

Now, it’s not immediately clear what the RPA is proposing here, and their comments surrounding the plan, including a subsequent blog post, did little to offer clarity. They say they want to “close the subways” for “more extended time periods” to allow for concentrated periods during which workers can access tracks. It’s indisputable that the current system, which allows for track access during limited overnight shutdowns, is a barrier to a quick signal replacement effort as the MTA itself believes it cannot complete a wholescale signal replacement effort in less than 40 years. But the scope of work completed during FASTRACK — night shutdowns, in which workers are afforded at most 4-5 hours of access — is limited to cosmetic repairs and track clean-up efforts. Replacing a light bulb isn’t the same as replacing an entire signal system.

Since the RPA mentioned the paucity of overnight riders, everyone latched onto this idea as a bad one put forth by a think tank insulated from the reality of low-income workers who rely on the late-night subway service, as bad as unreliable as it is, to get from work to home. Officer cleaners and late-shift healthcare aides can ill afford to lose their rides home. The outcry was immediate.

The mayor sounded an alarm and New York exceptionalism at its finest. “I’m a New Yorker, ” he said. “Twenty-four hour subway service is part of our birthright. You cannot shut down the subway at night. This is a 24 hour city.” (Of course, other 24-hour cities have more reliable late-night options via buses which are better suited for late-night ridership volumes, and some are only now introducing limited 24-hour service a few nights a week, but I digress.)

One City Council member is considering introducing a bill mandating overnight subway service be maintained if the MTA wants city funding. The law of unintended consequences is screaming in protest as this mandate could inhibit the MTA’s ability to do any work, let alone large-scale capital work it seemingly cannot do now.

Even MTA Chairman Joe Lhota pushed back hard as he seemingly objected to something the RPA wasn’t even proposing. “I believe a permanent closure of the entire subway system every night is a bit draconian,” he said. “The MTA has successfully been closing certain subway lines in evenings and on weekends as needed for maintenance and repairs. A permanent closure, I fear, would be inappropriate for the ‘city that never sleeps.’”

Had the RPA been more careful in its initial release, no one would have been talking about a permanent closure, and it’s not clear to me that the RPA intended to infer that a permanent closure was even on the table. We can unequivocally say that a permanent overnight closure of the subway system shouldn’t be on the table. The MTA doesn’t have enough maintenance workers to make this worthwhile, and there is no real underlying need to stop 24/7 service.

But to improve subway service at all other times, it may be time to consider line-by-line shutdowns for extended periods of time so that the MTA can make modernization a reality in the next 15 years rather than the next 40. My proposal comes with many conditionals and is modeled on the L train shutdown and what I believe to be the proper mitigation plan. Close entire lines, or certain discrete segments of them, for the number of months needed to make all repairs and replacements to the signal system. Provide adequate advanced notice and adequate replacement service (via bus bridges and increased service on nearby lines) and institute a night bus service as robust as the one in London. If this is sold as a short-term pain that’s necessary to deliver long-term gains, New Yorkers will accept it and plan around it. At this point, considering the state of the subway system, do we have another choice?

Last Thursday, RPA Chair Scott Rechler made just that point as the brouhahah over his organization’s plan developed.

Some late-night workers voiced their support too.

Of course, this is where the MTA’s credibility gap is a big negative. We don’t know what the L train mitigation plan is yet, and DOT and the MTA will have to collaborate on surface-level replacement service to a degree not seen in recent years. Worse though, New Yorkers don’t believe the MTA can complete work on time or provide adequate replacement service, and riders fear the MTA won’t restore service that is lost to short-term cuts. Based on the agency’s recent track record, I don’t blame anyone for this skepticism.

Yet, I’m left with the feeling that options are limited. Normal service these days is an unreliable toss-up of failing signals and endless delays, and experts expect unreliable transit to have a negative impact on NYC’s economy. If Option A involves short-term 24/7 shutdowns with the promise after of much better service and Option B involves muddling through until the entire system collapses, I’ll take A. How we get there from here involves careful messaging and a reasoned debate over the past way to fix the NYC subway system. The RPA’s plan, and the outcry over one vague paragraph in an otherwise thorough document, was not the way to start the discussion.

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