If New Yorkers Don’t Value Transit, Who Will?

It’s the largest transit system in the United States, moving millions of people daily throughout New York City and beyond and serving as the lifeblood of one of the largest economies in the world. Unfortunately, writes Streetsblog Network member Benjamin Kabak on Second Avenue Sagas, those who depend on the MTA — and those whom the MTA depends upon — are often ignorant of its plight and seemingly indifferent to its fate.

subway_1.jpgPhoto: Jennifer Aaron

As fares are poised to rise this weekend — following the painfully short-sighted last-minute doomsday deal — Kabak lays responsibility for the region’s transit woes at the feet of an apathetic public and disjointed advocacy efforts. Citing a series of recent interviews with straphangers by reporter Heather Haddon of amNewYork, Kabak writes: 

The best quotes from Haddon’s articles are from those who say
they will turn to their cars. “Now I know what I’m going to do next
week. I’m going to pull out the car,” Angela Pacheco of Brooklyn said,
because the 30-Day Unlimited Ride is going up the cost of a whopping
three gallons of gas. Another rider in another Haddon piece echoed Pacheco. “Might as well get a car,” Marcia Roberts, a Queens resident, said.

This is the attitude that explains why our mass transit system
doesn’t have political support. This is why people are going to be fighting with MTA employees
over the new fares. This is why politicians refuse to toll the East
River bridges, refuse to allow the city to implement camera-enforced
bus lanes. This is why the agency that runs our subway system — a
system that transports over 5.2 million people per day — is struggling
to keep it in a state of good repair.

On the eve of yet another fare hike, transit advocates have
themselves to blame. We haven’t united behind the proper message; we
haven’t overcome a powerful auto lobby; and we haven’t made our voices
heard by those who hold the purse strings. One day, that will change.
For now, we’re left with higher fares and a transit authority on life
support.

All of which begs the question: If New York City doesn’t recognize the value of a healthy transit system, who will serve as the much-needed role model for the rest of the country?

In happier Network news, Streetsblog San Francisco reports progress toward lifting the bike infrastructure injunction. Meanwhile, World Streets talks up shared public spaces, Hard Drive advises a reader on motorcycle noise, and Bike Portland bids farewell to Michael Jackson with — what else? — a bike ride. 

  • I don’t agree that New York has a disjointed transit advocacy effort. Since the 1990s, the Empire State Transportation Alliance (ESTA) http://www.rpa.org/2008/10/esta.html has brought together the business community, environmentalists, labor, and transportation riders group to successfully advocate for fully funding MTA’s capital plans, which will enable projects like the Second Avenue Subway, East Side Access and important station rehabilitation projects across the region. Most recently, the Campaign for New York’s Future working with ESTA and the road coalition- NYRIC, helped obtain the funding package that averted the “Doomsday” scenario of fare hikes and service cuts. (See their campaign website http://ga3.org/campaign/adv_keepnymovggen.) That the New York region now has a regional payroll tax in place to help fund the region’s transit system (and already cross-subsidizes transit from road and bridge tolls) puts us light years ahead of other regions in the nation and their approach to funding transit.
    I think the greater problem here in New York is the public’s general distrust and dislike of the MTA, and perception that it is bloated, corrupt, wasteful, etc. This attitude is evident in the amNew York article, cited above. This was a serious challenge in the recent battle in Albany for transit funding, and the MTA hasn’t done much to help its cause. It needs a major effort to improve its image with the public by simple customer service improvements and a more savvy P.R. campaign.

    But no matter what you do, when you conduct a man-on-the-street interview while raising fares, you’ll always get negative responses.

  • I should amend my statement above. The MTA has TRIED to help its cause (in terms of public perception) but hasn’t made much headway. The agency took various actions during Lee Sander’s tenure to cut waste, improve efficiency, etc., but these were not recognized by the public or the politicians in Albany.