Southern Brooklyn

The Commute: Why Transit Is A Last Resort For Many – Part 3 Of 3

Allan Rosen... fighting since 2011 for our buses to look like this! Source: Don Brown Bus Sales
Allan Rosen… fighting since 2011 for our buses to look like this! Source: Don Brown Bus Sales

THE COMMUTE: In Parts 1, and 2, we discussed how the MTA could make subway and bus service more attractive so that it is not the choice of last resort. There should not be standees on the trains near midnight, and local buses need to be more reliable, among other measures. Yet there are still other reasons why many refuse to use buses and subways. It has to do with little concern for customer service and a lack of honesty on the part of the MTA. This leads to general distrust of the agency, in spite of all the hard work they do to keep the system up and running.

I have been writing transit articles for Sheepshead Bites for nearly four years now. Usually, the most recent articles receive the most attention, comment-wise. However, nearly three years later, one article continues to accrue new comments. In “The MTA May Be Stealing Your Money,” I pointed out problems with the MTA’s MetroCard. Every few months, another reader cites an instance of how he undeservingly lost money on his or her MetroCard by not receiving a free transfer he was entitled to, or having hundreds of dollars suddenly disappear.

Such glitches are to be expected in a system as complex as MetroCard or a system that has millions of users. What should be expected is a quick investigation, a prompt response and a quick resolution. However, that is not the case. Riders have complained of having to wait months or years for a resolution, in addition to having to contact the MTA numerous times. That is unacceptable. A response that MetroCard is an old system and will be replaced in five years does nothing to appease today’s riders.

Yet, the MTA often uses the future as an excuse as to why the system cannot operate better today. Often improvements are made only after years and years of political pressure when the MTA acquiesces to customer concerns. Bus bunching, the most severe local bus problem has been ignored, with the MTA claiming it is all due to traffic beyond their control. Their solution was, when we get a bus tracking system up and running, promised since 1980 and finally achieved last year, bunching will be thing of the past. It seems now to be worse than ever.

They long insisted that air-conditioning the subway was an impossible task. Even after the BMT-IND was air-conditioned, the MTA insisted that the IRT cars were too small for air-conditioning to be effective on those cars, until someone pointed out that PATH had the same size cars and were air-conditioned. The MTA long insisted that extra-long buses and low-floor buses were not suitable for the streets of New York, until they were finally tried and not only were they proved wrong, passengers benefitted as well. The MTA refused to provide elevators in the subway or make buses wheelchair accessible until the Americans With Disabilities Act required them to do so. Why?

Customer Service Is A Low MTA Priority

That is the reason.

Some small problems are investigated and fixed, but system-wide problems just continue. The MTA more often looks for excuses as to why appropriate changes cannot be made instead of fairly investigating problems. If you make a pest of yourself like I have, by insisting they solve problems, they just ignore you. My latest complaint regarding the B1 received a response that it was being turned over to Operations for investigation, and I have not heard another word in more than three months.

The MTA is not trusted and for good reason. They keep lying and distorting. They have touted Select Bus Service (SBS) as the greatest thing since sliced bread and are looking to greatly expand it. They want you to think they are doing it to help the passenger, when the real reason is they are receiving federal money and buses complete their runs in less time saving them money. Is it better for the passenger? Yes, for some, but worse for others. My biggest problem with SBS is that the MTA does not do fair and unbiased analyses to ascertain how many are helped and how many are hurt. They want you to believe that everyone benefits, which definitely is not the case.

Here is an example: MTA Spokesman Kevin Ortiz recently stated that SBS reduces travel times by 20 percent and ridership increases by 10 percent. A rational person would extrapolate that the average passenger using SBS travels to his destination 20 percent quicker, which is totally untrue. The decrease of 20 percent in travel times is for someone who gets on at the first stop and off at the last stop, which is practically no one. The savings does not include the extra time to walk to a bus stop, which in some cases are one mile apart. The extra time walking to and from the SBS bus often eats up all your time travel savings.

Actually the average SBS or local trip is only 2.3 miles, saving the passenger a mere six minutes — not the great amount of savings the MTA implies. Just making a connection can often save you 10 minutes. No mention is made that the increase in service for SBS passengers often comes at the expense of local passengers who get reduced service on the complimentary local bus line. B44 bus service at non-SBS stops south of Avenue U has been cut by 75 percent since the implementation of SBS on that line.

The MTA admits that SBS is not perfect. However, it certainly is no substitute for rapid transit, which costs a great deal more money. However, if you listen to people such as Elena Conte of the Pratt Center, you will come away believing that it is an adequate substitute.

Yes, many improvements cost money, but some, such as providing accurate or better public information, only require the will of those in charge. Blogger David Gerber recently studied subway announcements and how so many are just wrong. You can read his thoughts here and here.


Former MTA Chairman Peter Stangl in the 1980s was the last chairman to emphasize customer service. No other chairperson before or since has made an effort to elevate customer service as an MTA priority. That filters downward throughout the agency, so bosses don’t value treating passengers well as being a priority. When I started at the MTA in 1981, I oversaw responses to all bus service complaints. I remember one letter in particular: A passenger complained signage was unclear at a Fifth Avenue Manhattan bus stop. Rather than have someone in field check it out, a dispatcher, who reported to me, made a special trip to investigate this single complaint. He drafted a letter for my signature, informing the bus rider that no problem existed at the location and that, if she does not know how to read English, she should not be riding our buses. I ripped up the letter and told him we should never address our passengers in such a rude manner, and that he should rewrite the letter from scratch. I was quite upset. My boss, however, couldn’t care less when I informed him of the incident. I doubt if the attitude of upper management is any different today.

The MTA needs to reinvent itself with regard to how it values customer service and how it treats its passengers. It must also be more efficient. Spending an entire day investigating a single passenger complaint as my employee did was just plain inefficient. How much more waste and inefficiency remains at the MTA?  During my nearly 25 years there, I saw so much, I can’t even describe it. Many employees just goofed off 50 percent of the time and many high level managers, I felt, did not earn their day’s pay. Some merely delegated all their work, passing the tasks of their underlings back up the chain, adding little or nothing to the process. They only badgered their employees, asking why the assignment had not yet been completed. Yet those were the employees the MTA typically rewarded with promotions and higher pay — the ones who didn’t rock the boat nor offered new ideas. Those who actually did the work were taken for granted while those offering new ideas were often considered trouble-makers.

Governor Cuomo agrees that the MTA must approach the future differently in terms of how it serves its passengers. That is evidenced by this letter to the MTA last May. It required the MTA to head a Transportation Reinvention Commission. You can submit your online comments here. I am just wondering, given all that needs to be changed with regard to how the MTA conducts itself, with all its internal politics and blame shifting between departments, if the commission shouldn’t have been an independent one. The MTA needs change from top to bottom if transit is not to be a last resort. Throwing more money at the MTA will not solve all its problems. Much of it will just be misdirected or wasted.

The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).

Disclaimer: The above is an opinion column and may not represent the thoughts or position of Sheepshead Bites. Based upon their expertise in their respective fields, our columnists are responsible for fact-checking their own work, and their submissions are edited only for length, grammar and clarity. If you would like to submit an opinion piece or become a regularly featured contributor, please e-mail nberke [at] sheepsheadbites [dot] com.