New York needs to think bigger and be bolder

August 29, 2017

Travelling, whether for work or for pleasure provides an opportunity to appreciate other cultures and experience life in other cities and to benchmark these against cities you know well.

On a recent visit to the US with my family, we travelled around New York City, walking the equivalent of 2 marathons and riding the Subway frequently. Answering a favourite interview question of mine "If you had 1 minute with the City Mayor, what would you tell him/her?", this is what I would say to Bill de Blasio, New York's Mayor since 2014.

The MTA's Subway system fails to provide a fast, convenient, safe and welcoming passenger experience. Years of underinvestment, lack of maintenance and failure to invest over the long term has resulted in a system that can't deliver the world class urban transport the city needs. As a result, it's clear that many residents and visitors have abandoned the system. The streets are gridlocked with traffic and the conflict with pedestrians, particularly in Manhattan, is widespread and significant. Land use continues to densify across the city and a basic appreciation of transport planning would indicate that these problems won’t go away anytime soon. 

The MTA Capital Programme (2015 - 2019) focuses on opportunities to renew, enhance and expand the city’s transport network, with US$14.5billion allocated to Subway Improvements. Halfway through that programme, there's very little evidence of delivery and its impact. 

The five key issues identified are as follows: 

  1. There's not enough capacity to efficiently move people around the city, both in terms of line capacity and station capacity. Specific bottlenecks at stations do exist where passenger flow is severely restricted, but it's really a network wide issue.
  2. There's a chronic level of fare evasion. This can be seen at stations as people slip under ticket barriers and flood through the emergency door when it’s left open.
  3. There's such low levels of staffing on stations. There’s now an unprecedented level of illegal busking, begging and sleeping on the trains and in stations. This really does have an impact on safety and security of passengers, particularly visitors to the city.
  4. Stations are neglected; lighting is below standard, décor is poor and the ambience is well below what passengers expect of a modern public transport network.
  5. The information provided is scant and poorly delivered. Static signage is inadequate, real time information isn't widely available/visible and PA announcements on trains are of such poor quality, they cause more confusion than good. 

The US$14.5billion allocated to the Subway programme doesn't do enough to tackle these five key issues. New York needs to think bigger, be bolder, and plan more longer term, and from the passenger's perspective. A 5 year plan was never going to deliver the improvements required. Get away from an asset based improvement strategy and think about the quality of the service you want to provide the "customer" and let that drive the programme. 
Come on New York, don't get left behind.