MTA: Malthusian Temblor Apples

Since I've already maligned New York by comparing it to my old home in terms of food, it seems only fair to balance things out by complaining about the Bay Area's public transportation in comparison to New York.

Now, I should begin by saying that the Bay Area probably has the best public transportation system on the West Coast. It's certainly better than anything in southern California, and, since my only real point of reference for my years in Berkeley was the desolation of suburban San Diego, I really enjoyed the Bay Area's public transportation while I was there.

But now I've lived for a month in New York City and I fear I've already been spoiled. The system here, while not perfect, run about as well as you could realistically hope. The trains are largely on time, and most lines run every five minutes. Further, the subway runs twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Stops are plentiful, and there's a well-managed system of local and express trains (Express and local trains run on parallel tracks. Local trains make all the stops, while express trains make just the major stops, roughly every fifth or sixth station. It's very easy to transfer between express and local trains, so you can hop on a local, transfer to an express, then get back on the local to whereever you need to get off, and save a good amount of time in the process. Or, if you prefer to sit and read, you can just stay on the local).

Coverage is great, you can get all over Manhattan easily, Brooklyn somewhat less easily, and, well, you can get out to Queens and the Bronx, though they're somewhat less well-covered. There are some oversights and inconveniences in the layout (It would be really nice to have more cross-town lines in northern Manhattan, for instance under Central Park. As it is, to get from the Upper East Side to the Upper West Side by subway you have to go all the way down to Time's Square, south of Central Park, transfer, then go all the way back up the other side). But generally it's very easy to get around by subway. The lines generally run North-South, there's a stop roughly every 6 blocks, and you're never more than a block or two east or west of a line.

And then there's the cost. You pay for entry, not by the distance. You buy cards at electronic kiosks. Fare is $2 generally, but there's a 20% discount for purchases of $10 or more at a time (so you pay $10 and get a $12 card, or put another way, you get 6 rides for $10). Or, if you use the subway frequently, they have time-based passes. It's $7 for a one-day unlimited ride pass, $24 for a 7-day pass, or $76 for a 30-day pass. You swipe as you enter to get through the turnstile, a little display shows how much money is left on your Metrocard, and you can go through and put your card away. No need to fiddle around looking for it when you leave.

But here's the thing that really amazed me coming from the Bay Area, even though it shouldn't have. New York City has one public transportation agency, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, or MTA. One. They also run Metro North, the southern New York train system, and have deals to share tracks and stations and sell tickets with New Jersey's and Connecticut's rail systems, so you're dealing with the same people there. The upshot of this: you use the same card to ride the buses that you use to ride the subway, on the same fare schedule. No searching for change, you just walk on a bus and swipe your card. If you don't have a card, fare is an even $2 and they will accept your bills and change, but most people just use the Metrocard. Further: Transfers are electronically coordinated. When you swipe onto a bus, you can swipe onto any bus or subway for the next two hours and get on without a fare being deducted. Similarly, when you swipe into the subway, you can then use your card to get on a bus free of charge for the next two hours (Subway-to-subway transfers are much more complex and don't work the same way). That's the nice thing about not having half a dozen public transportation organizations running half a dozen transit systems with half a dozen fare schedules.

Now, things aren't perfect. As mentioned, it could cover more. It's also a somewhat complex system, as I alluded to above (they use colors and numbers and letters to refer to lines, many times in combination, as in, "Take the downtown NQRW to 42nd Street then transfer to an uptown 2-3 up to 96th, then go local to 116th."). The complexity is aggravated by weekend track maintenance, which causes all sorts of crazy changes in how the lines run. Notices are posted at the entrances to subway stations about how things will be altered (e.g. the 1 will stop at Chambers Street and not go all the way to South Ferry, or the 4 will go express between 60th and 112th streets), but nobody actually pays attention to these signs, leading you, the confused rider, to watch your stop go wizzing by as the train goes express, or find yourself unceremoniously ejected from the subway half a mile from your intended destination. It should also be pointed out that the New York subway is not very clean. The cars are old and decrepit, everything's bathed in a sickly yellow light, there's graffiti on the cars, etchings on the windows, and you don't want to know what's on the floor and seats. It's crowded (though, of course, a well-running public transportation should be; it shows it's popular) and there is distinctly an every-man-for-himself attitude, particularly when it comes to scrambling to snatch seats from the elderly, infirm, and children. I haven't felt especially unsafe on the subway, but I also haven't ridden it after midnight without a group of friends.

Still, though, I'd rather have a well-functioning but unsightly transit system than a neat, clean, orderly system that fails at its basic task of getting me where I want to go quickly and cheaply.

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on September 4, 2005 10:27 PM.

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