The Will Of The People – Part 1

This is what MTA subway cars looked like before NYCT President David Gunn spearheaded initiatives to eliminate graffiti throughout the system. Source: JJ & Special K

THE COMMUTE: This is the first part of a three-part series. Today I will be discussing the role of the public in transit decision-making.

The foundation of our democracy is based on a system of checks and balances to prevent any one entity from becoming too powerful. So far this has worked out pretty well.

During the early part of the last century we saw a significant rise in labor unions due to employers taking unfair advantage of their employees. Unions have become less powerful in recent decades as laws were passed to protect employees granting them additional rights.

In the 1940s, if a trackworker was killed on the job, it was regarded as his own fault because he wasn’t being cautious enough. Thanks to people like Michael Quill, one of the founders of the Transport Workers Union and its first president for most of its first 30 years, that is no longer the case. Today, management in all industries realizes that employee safety is just as much their responsibility as it is the employees’, and that it is also in their best interests to protect their employees.

In 1980, the unions still ruled. The TWU prevented the MTA from expanding a successful bus locator system in use at the Queens Village Depot to other depots. They also were successful in getting the MTA to remove the system already in place simply by threatening to strike because they did not want management keeping track of where their bus drivers were, although they had every right to do so. The unions considered it “Big Brother,” with 1984 only four years away. It took another 30 years for the MTA to implement an additional trial of a bus locator system, after numerous failed attempts. This one, called Bus Time, is GPS-based and is in effect on a few routes, one in Brooklyn, with plans to expand it system-wide. Today, the unions are powerless to try to stop it if they wanted to.

The Public Needs To Play A Larger Role

Transit, in most large cites today is operated by government departments or authorities. Some of them, like our own MTA, are all-powerful and virtually responsible to no one. MTA management and the unions are only two elements in the struggle for power. Elected officials and the public are the other two players.

We have unions fighting for their members not willing to give up archaic work rules hindering the MTA from becoming more efficient, and we have politicians who do not care about transit, with Albany constantly reducing MTA funding. We also have you, the public, who loves to bash the MTA, but is not willing to do anything constructive to improve matters.

Last week, Ben Kabak of asked why the public is not more active in fighting for improved transit. He writes:

“Part of the problem is one of numbers. The Straphangers’ Campaign is basically three people with limited money, and Transportation Alternatives doesn’t focus exclusively on transit. There’s just one subway rider advocate on the MTA Board, and somehow these organizations are supposed to represent the interests of five million commuters who just want to get home quickly, maybe have a seat and not pay more for less service.”

He omitted the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee and the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, which also focuses on rails as well as subways. But that is more or less it. There is no powerful voice for transit comparable to the numerous nationwide groups fighting to better the environment.

What Transit Consumer Groups Have Accomplished

Historically, these transit groups, though small in number, have been responsible for important changes. The granddaddy of New York City-based transit consumer groups is the Committee for Better Transit, founded in 1962 and currently inactive since the passing of its founder, Dr. Stephen Dobrow, in 2002. Without them, we may never have received air-conditioned trains or articulated buses, or they may have arrived years later. The MTA was originally steadfast against both of these innovations, for a variety of reasons, for more than 10 years.

It was the Straphanger’s Campaign, after initiating their own surveys that the MTA claimed were inaccurate, that caused the MTA to start its own monitoring of the cleanliness of subway cars. Last week, Straphanger’s issued its first ever “State of the Stations” survey, in which they revealed that 79 percent of underground platforms have significant amounts of peeling paint, among other conclusions. Will the MTA now pay more attention to stations as a result? I bet they will. That 79 percent statistic is pretty embarrassing and Lhota will have to do something about it if he wants to improve the MTA’s image, as he said he would like to do.

MTA Innovation

The MTA is not known for being innovative. Until Jay Walder’s push for new technology, the general attitude was “if it ain’t broke, why fix it?” Traditionally, the MTA has opposed most positive improvements, usually citing budget constraints. Most of the positive changes have resulted from outside pressure by either by consumer groups or elected officials. The Capital Program brought the system back from its low point around 1980, but the decisions as to which stations would be rehabilitated first or which areas would get the newest fleet was largely influenced by who was screaming the loudest.

Most express bus routes were first offered to the MTA before being turned down by them and then accepted by private companies. Instead of wanting to fill gaps in the subway system, the MTA’s position was that they saw no need to compete with itself. When the MTA told Williamsburg and Borough Park in the 1970s that there was no market for an express bus route between those communities, they started their own private company, which still operates today and without a subsidy.

One notable exception where the MTA was innovative was the elimination of graffiti. Although, the MTA initially insisted it was a passing fad, even when it reached epidemic proportions by the mid-1970s, initial meager attempts to curtail it failed. Success was finally attained in 1989. Full credit for graffiti elimination goes to one person, NYCT President David Gunn, who had the overwhelming desire to put an end to it, then devised a strategy to accomplish that plan despite most everyone telling him that he would not succeed. As he told me back in 1984, besides the fact it looked ugly, what bothered him was that it sent the wrong message, “that we are not in control of our own system.” The lesson to be learned is that he was successful, because he set a goal and took the necessary steps to achieve it. The will was there.

The Public’s Role In Decision Making

Kabak noted that “riders are left out of important MTA decisions.”

That has to be the understatement of the year. Not only are they left out, they have virtually no say in any MTA decisions. Most riders regard hearings for fare increases as nothing more than a joke, with the MTA having its mind seemingly made up prior to the hearings, which are just a formality required by law (they will be held again this autumn). The MTA did accept some public input in modifying a few of the proposed 2010 service cutbacks, but that is the exception rather than the rule.

Tomorrow: More on MTA responsiveness to the public and who is to blame for the state of transit today.

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).