Five Ways the MTA Can Gain the Confidence of Transit Riders

New MTA chair Joe Lhota is promising a public-facing dashboard that functions as a "report card" on the agency's performance. Here's what would make it a useful tool to improve accountability and build trust with riders.

This is how Transport for London communicates the impact of bus delays on riders — in minutes, a metric everyone can grasp. Image: Mark O’Donovan/TfL
This is how Transport for London communicates the impact of bus delays on riders — in minutes, a metric everyone can grasp. Image: Mark O’Donovan/TfL

Newly-appointed MTA chief Joe Lhota has committed to building a “roadmap” for the agency within 60 days of taking office, according to an undated letter to agency staff obtained by TransitCenter [PDF].

In the letter, Lhota promises to create a “dashboard that presents the metrics of how we are doing,” which “will not be just a tool for the MTA, but a report card to the public on our progress.”

A public-facing performance dashboard could be an important step to increase accountability at the MTA and build trust with riders. It could allow the agency to “have a real conversation with people about what’s going on with transit,” said TransitCenter communications director Jon Orcutt. “It gives people some sense of a light at the end of the tunnel and that someone is in charge, and no one feels that way about the MTA right now.”

It could also be a dud — the outcome will depend on which metrics the MTA chooses to publish, and whether the agency sticks with it in the long run. Streetsblog spoke to transit and open data advocates about what to look for in the MTA’s dashboard. Here’s what they told us.

Reporting on service quality in a way that matters to riders 

TransitCenter says the MTA should use this opportunity to rethink how it reports on the quality of service.

The MTA’s preferred service quality metric — “wait assessment” — only conveys the percentage of trains with significant delays. This matters more to the people who run the trains than to the people who ride them.

For subway and bus riders, what matters is how much time they lose due to slow or unreliable service. The metric considered the best industry practice for communicating this aspect of the rider experience is called “excess journey time,” which is measured in minutes, not percentages. Adopting excess journey time as the standard metric would give riders information that relates to what they encounter every day on trains and platforms, said TransitCenter NYC program director Tabitha Decker.

Legible status updates on MTA capital projects

The MTA already publishes an online dashboard that’s supposed to help people track progress on maintenance work, expansion projects, and other capital upgrades, but it’s hard to decipher and missing key information, like the original project timetables.

Advocates want to see the MTA do better. The public should be updated regularly on “the timeline and status of major upgrades like signal projects, subway car procurement, transit signal priority for buses, the new fare payment system, and elevator installations,” said Decker. “We should see on that website, we’re doing ‘X’ on signals, we’ve got ‘Y’ plan for the new payment system, and that stuff should be up-to-date and be monthly.”

An accessibility dashboard

Riders with disabilities count on elevators to use the ADA-accessible stations in the subway system, but these elevators are often out of service.

Riders should be able to access real-time information on elevator and escalator outages, including the estimated length of the outages, said Straphangers Campaign coordinator Jaqi Cohen, as well as regular updates on the agency’s progress in improving Access-A-Ride service.

Tracking responsiveness to rider feedback

Another function of the dashboard could be similar to the city’s 311 database, tracking rider complaints by date, location, nature of complaint, and resolution, said Cohen.

“Something we hear consistently from riders is that they feel like submitting a complaint to the MTA is like shouting into the abyss, they often don’t know if their complaint is being heard and how the issue they’re bringing to light is being resolved,” she said. “We think having access to customer complaint data will help provide riders with a better understanding of how the MTA responds to customer complaints, and will help bring to light the parts of the system experiencing the greatest issues.”

Defining standards for open MTA data in state law

The creation of a performance dashboard is a positive step, said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany and co-chair of the NYC Transparency Working Group — one that should be codified in law. Otherwise, the risk is that it will be toothless or watered down over time.

The current capital program dashboard, for instance, was intended to enable the public to track whether MTA projects were over-budget or past due. But the site no longer lists originally scheduled completion dates, so it’s no good as an accountability tool.

“The whole entire point of the capital projects dashboard was to have the original budget and completion date posted so that the public could see delays,” said Kaehny. “Frankly, there needs to be a state law. There has to be legislation requiring MTA transparency.”

  • Joe R.

    I’d like to have a metric comparing the ideal running time (i.e. no timers or crippled equipment) on a route to the actual running time. By that metric we’ll be able to see how poorly the MTA is really doing. For the purposes of this metric we would assume the equipment accelerates at full power until it needs to slow down for the next station stop. We can also assume full service deceleration rates. The only time we wouldn’t assume this is when lower speed limits must be observed due to track curvature.

    Giving a 5 minute cushion on an already padded schedule is hardly an unbiased metric. The MTA can tweak the schedule so 90% or 95% of trains are always on time.

  • Matthew

    I was always a fan of the CTA slow zone elimination map. I wish NYC would make the same kind of effort to reduce slow zones.

  • Joe R.

    We definitely need to do that here. Also, nice to see the “normal” speed on straight track can be up to 55 mph. The MTA seems to be allergic to speed, even when track is in good repair.

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  • fdtutf

    For safety reasons, running without timers is not always possible, so showing a metric with all timers eliminated would be misleading.

    I agree that some timers probably need to be removed (and, if needed, other measures introduced to provide safety at those locations), but removing all of them isn’t realistic.

  • Joe R.

    Timers are fine in places where it’s really necessary to reduce speed for safety reasons, such as sharp curves. A metric using minimum running time by definition would account for any needed speed reductions. I’m just annoyed at the MTA’s penchant for sticking timers on long straights or very wide curves where the trains can and did safely run at full speed in the past.

    CBTC will of course eventually fix all this, but seriously after over two decades of slowdowns since the WB incident I would think the MTA would have tried to find a better interim solution than timers and neutering all their fleet. The latter is particular galling as it slows down trains even in places where there is no safety issues. They even neutered the newer trains like the R160s. I’m surprised the manufacturers didn’t void the warranty for that. I know I would have as it represents alterations in equipment outside manufacturer specifications. The slower speeds will doubtless result in more running gear maintenance (i.e. most railway equipment seems to be a lot more “choppy” at speeds in the 25 to 45 mph range compared to higher speeds where it mostly just glides along).

  • fdtutf

    I’m just annoyed at the MTA’s penchant for sticking timers on long straights or very wide curves where the trains can and did safely run at full speed in the past.

    On this we agree. Nowadays when I ride the subway, I often have the theme from “Petticoat Junction” in my head:

    Come and ride the little train that is rollin’ down the tracks to the Junction…

  • Joe R.

    LOL but very true!

  • Hux

    Yes, the schedule is important and it is good to adhere to it. It accounts for demand, network (track, signal, terminal) capacity, fleet capacity, load factors, budget, route design (local, express, skip, length, headways), crew work rules, frequencies.
    If we change the schedule, we can increase reliability. Dispatchers and crews can adhere to something attainable. They can minimize the need to intervene, reduce travel time, crowding, and allow us to have better data. The schedule is the benchmark and allows us to identify capital needs.

    Many of our schedules are just wrong and out of date so dispatchers don’t follow them. They can’t make it on time. No wonder trains end up missing merges, short turning or skipping stations. We are not providing the scheduled service as it is, so while a schedule change on paper appears like a service cut (lengthening running times), maybe it can help improve reliability.

    We can also just get our signals and signage correct. Crews always tell us that the signals are not calibrated correctly or not even properly marked, so they go a lot slower than planned and some crews are more cautious than others, so they go even slower and then trains start bunching and causing overcrowding. This is simple stuff that is being ignored and there does not appear to be anyone specifically responsible for checking signals. Line superintendents, train service supervisors, crews… they are all supposed to be reporting these things and I suppose the culture is so bad here that people have given up on trying to improve things.

    Are there any incentives for fixing things or going faster? Crews get OT for going late and going faster can only get them in trouble if they go over a red signal. No one is going to say “go faster”, the unions will get involved, and even the maintenance crews get paid more for working slowly. To stay and get your pension, I think you need to learn to keep quiet and please your boss, like many other companies, so maybe bad news does not even reach top leadership. Or they are focused on messaging and spend their time appeasing the public and politicians, so they have little time to fix things. Or they are too far removed from reality. This can happen in other companies but the difference is that we are government so we don’t need to care about competitors driving us out of business if we don’t fix our problems and keep misstating facts, etc.

    Remember, we were not allowed to say the word “delay” a few years ago. They just wanted to cover things up and pretend delays didn’t matter. But that defeatist attitude, looking for excuses and short-term solutions, seems hard to address. It is easy for them to hear things they want to hear (i.e., blaming ridership) but hard for them to accept bad news. Often we are told not to even share bad news because it will harm our careers and reputation, apparently.

  • Hux

    There are many disconnects in the MTA. The people who run the trains don’t write the schedules, and the people who write the schedules often don’t know much about the conditions underground. The people who make the policies may have never learned how to operate a train. Capital construction builds things that maintenance won’t be able to maintain easily, or they build things without understanding operations (some of our newest terminals have low capacity.) Hard for everyone to work together and think about the whole subway system… let alone all of the MTA modes and connections to the buses and railroads… let alone to City and other agencies in the region!

    For instance, the Montague Tunnel (R train) was rebuilt without adequate clearance for older rolling stock. Instead of fixing this, the MTA is spending more money in the long-term rerouting older trains away from this tunnel, which takes longer and disrupts more service, in order to get them to yards for repair. They reopened the tunnel after Sandy repairs early, and didn’t want to close it again after finding out about the clearance issues, in order to save face.

    Or, let’s say there’s a track problem causing trains to break down. Track will easily blame Car Equipment and say they aren’t maintaining things properly, rather than just fix the problem, to save face. Service delivery (they run the trains) will blame slow crews on the department that trains the crews. Management will blame unions, unions will blame management. Governor blames Mayor, Mayor blames Governor.
    It is hard to hold departments/divisions accountable (car equipment, service delivery, track, signals, MOW, third rail, etc etc), especially with these long-term changes. Signal modifications are supposed to not slow down service, but in reality, whenever there is an incident, it takes a lot longer to recover, since the control lines and all of the grade time signals make the system less resilient. Also, crews don’t trust the signals since they are sometimes miscalculated, so they go slower. There is a lot of distrust. Signals will blame crews, crews will blame signals. Maybe they will both blame ridership or the weather. So much bureaucracy and paperwork to change anything.

    I’m sure it’s the same for buses. Let’s say a bus runs into a pot hole and breaks down. Who is to blame? The operator, for running into the hole? The City, for not maintaining the road? The weather, for causing it? The bus maintainers, for not making the bus more resilient?

    All of this extra time arguing and not coordinating things costs extra time and money. Easy to blame others, esp. ridership or “decades of deferred maintenance”… even though we spend more and more. I don’t know how to change this culture. Maybe the fish rots from the head. But it seems many people are happy to just work slowly and collect their pension, after years of working here, they are disillusioned and demoralized.

  • Hux

    Adding running time to the schedules appears as a service cut on paper, since we don’t have more cars and we need the ones we have to travel longer journeys. In reality, we already have so many delays and abandonments under our current schedule, that we are short turning a lot of trains and just not running them, so we have a service cut already.

    If we ran to the schedule and were on-time, we could meet merges. We need to change our procedures. Stop blaming ridership, start blaming ourselves. Crews are trained to go slower and to not trust the signals, since many of them are not even working properly. Before, if crew went over a red, they were not automatically punished… if it didn’t happen too often, leadership even apparently thought it was a good thing, it meant they were trying to meet the schedule, etc.