MTA Survivors Dish on the Agency’s Reluctance to Embrace Change

Three former MTA staffers described how a culture of risk aversion hinders internal efforts at the agency to improve train and bus service.

From left: TransitCenter's David Bragdon interviewing former MTA staffers Larry Gould, Sarah Kaufman, and Chris Pangilinan. Photo: David Meyer
From left: TransitCenter's David Bragdon interviewing former MTA staffers Larry Gould, Sarah Kaufman, and Chris Pangilinan. Photo: David Meyer

When Larry Gould was working in MTA transit planning and operations in the 1980s, he pitched the idea of buying train cars with “niches” — small spaces to the side of train doors that riders can fit into to clear paths for people getting off and on, speeding the boarding process.

“I remember trying to sell it, and trying to explain it, and I said, ‘Well, they have it on the PATH cars,'” Gould, now a planner at Nelson\Nygaard, said last night at a TransitCenter panel featuring former MTA staffers. “There was nobody at the table who knew what the PATH cars looked like.”

It was a reflection of the agency’s insularity that sheds light on New York’s transit troubles today. The MTA may have talented staff, but the changes needed to modernize and improve train and bus service are routinely stifled by a risk-averse internal culture that doesn’t place a high value on promptly adopting best practices in the transit industry.

Cities like Paris, London, and Zurich may have figured out how to build transit capital improvements more efficiently than New York. But at New York City Transit, Gould said, “It’s not part of your training… to know what they’re doing in Zurich or London or Paris.”

Gould was joined by Sarah Kaufman and Chris Pangilinan, who both left the MTA after determining they could do more to provoke change from the outside. They described a workplace with no shortage of talent or ideas, especially among younger staff, but encumbered by hesitant middle management, an old boys club culture straight out of the “Mad Men” era, and overbearing political leaders.

Kaufman, who worked at the MTA from 2006 to 2011, said she struggled to get open data policies and social media communication strategies up and running. She eventually made breakthroughs, including the launch of the Weekender app and the opening of MTA bus and train data to developers, but she had to swim against the current the whole way.

“It took reaching out to people individually to eventually to get this thing going, and then it took volunteers, who really bubbled up from junior staff, to say, ‘I want to do this,'” she said. By the end of her stint, she was spending 80 percent of her time struggling to get colleagues and superiors to buy into her ideas, she said.

While Kaufman was fighting for open data, Pangilinan was working at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, releasing whatever data he wanted without conflict or fear of retribution. Pangilinan later spent two years at the MTA working on rail planning and bus data, where management was far less willing to let staffers take such initiative.

“A lot of this conservatism comes from a fear of what’s going to happen from the person above you — all the way to the top,” Pangilinan said. “You could just tell that [managers] were struggling with their hands behind their back, and they were grimacing to say no to me to release data or to try something new.”

When change does happen at the MTA, it’s usually due to the alignment of younger staff and top executives, the panelists said. Kaufman credited former MTA Chair Jay Walder for breaking the logjam on open data and supporting the reforms she was trying to bring about. “There was a lot of resistance all along the way, but when the ideas came from the bottom, and the initiative came from the top, things actually happened,” she said.

The panelists offered a few recent changes as evidence that motivated MTA staff are looking out for riders and able to steer the ship in a better direction. Gould cited the recent elevation of easy-to-understand measurements of subway performance over older, less-accessible metrics as an encouraging sign.

Advocates can help buoy MTA staff pushing for internal reforms by providing external political support. “Look for small wins and take advantage of those,” Pangilinan said, citing the Staten Island bus network redesign and the continued rollout of Select Bus Service. “We’ve got to celebrate that and support it, and not let those initiatives get watered down.”

At the same time, the power of the governor to shape the agency’s culture and let the MTA’s best people flourish can’t be overstated. A generation ago, when the MTA was emerging from its low point of disinvestment, agency chiefs like Robert Kiley and David Gunn were willing to take risks to rescue the system from near-collapse. They were given the leeway to do so by the political leaders of the time, said Gould.

“Kiley and Gunn had unequivocal support from their political handlers, whereas the current staff has unequivocal oversight from their handlers,” he said. “The situation [in the 1980s] was so desperate that you basically had to give it to people and fully empower them.”

  • Knut Torkelson

    This makes Lhota’s appointment even more troubling. Why can’t we get someone who has run a successful modern system in another country? I’m sure they will face stiff internal resistance but it’s hard to imagine things substantially improving otherwise.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Kiley and Gunn had unequivocal support from their political handlers, whereas the current staff has unequivocal oversight from their handlers,” he said. “The situation [in the 1980s] was so desperate that you basically had to give it to people and fully empower them.”

    Yup, I worked there at the time, and it was pretty good. But here’s another side to it.

    New York City Transit is one of the few places where people can work their way up from laborer to management, like in the old days, even if they haven’t been to college or gradually get a degree at night.

    To these people, someone coming in from an academic environment, never having operated a train, fixed a signal (or anything else), have pie in the sky ideas that don’t work out. They’ve been to their own internal school, and see what has worked. The system would collapse without them.

    “They described a workplace with no shortage of talent or ideas, especially among younger staff.”

    I’m not sure talking about solutions makes sense in New York politics, but I have thought about this. The way to get the most of out “young staff” with “talent and ideas” is to (overcoming TWU resistance) get them working more directly one day a week out of five. Operate a train. Drive a bus. Repair a traction motor. Work on a track gang.
    Get trained to do it, learn to do it, do it, see it done.

    If they have talent, the result would be more ideas. And you’d end up with more people providing service, while compressing the bureaucracy, forcing those in it to speed things up. And if they end up in management they’d be more sympathetic to the workers, without being a neophyte that could be BSed by the union.

  • Vooch

    watch this amusing video and weep.

    We can‘t even get a few bike racks at out stations, much less a fully integrated one seat ride system with integrated ticketing.

  • Larry Littlefield

    One of the ways in which Europe is moving far ahead of the U.S. is not just transit, but payment systems in general.

    I’m glad that no contract for a new payment system has been awarded, because I had been told that it was sure to go to a monopoly existing major American oligopoly bank. Meanwhile, young people hardly ever use plain old cash these days.

    With all those stations that could have the equivalent of ATMs and tellers, and a stored value medium other than money that millions of people would have to use, the MTA could instead help some other entity to create the start of another major bank. Or perhaps two.

    The station agents (subway and commuter rail) would primarily be bank tellers who did station agent stuff in their spare time, since most of the work is now done by the Metrocard and would-be ATM machines, saving the MTA huge, huge money.

    But now you are not only taking on the TWU, you are taking on Wall Street. The Post Office proposed postal banking, which they have in other countries, as a way to save the system. Anyone see how far that got?

  • Urbanely

    I would settle for politicians and upper management that ride the trains daily. It seems that junior level people are on the subway and have longer commutes, so they can make suggestions or at least comment on what’s working and not working. How does upper management get to work? If it’s anything like many City agencies, the upper levels drive in or live close enough to work that they don’t really spend any time on transit and don’t have any interest in changing anything.

  • bolwerk

    We did. Remember what they did to Walder? TWU people camped out in front of his apartment building with a giant rat for most of his tenure.

    Then Cuomo was elected, and decided he knew better.

  • bolwerk

    I like the credit union-esque approach still.

    I bet the major lobbyist hurdle here is not Wall Street, but the check cashing and payday loan industry. Most commercial banks already try to discourage anyone who deposits less than a thousand a month from even bothering to use their services.

    (For anyone interested, Larry and I had a long thread about this on SAS.)

  • Larry Littlefield

    NYC is underbanked for most people. There is a need for banking for the poor, as you say — the same market the Post Office proposed to go after.

    But what there is really a shortage of is large, money center banks. Every financial crisis has been solved by merging them into an ever-smaller number of ever larger firms, a politically powerful oligopoly.

    The most important financial market of all, the one that is the foundation of all the other markets, is the secondary market in U.S. Treasuries, which sets the “risk free” interest rate that all other financial assets are based off. Guess how many banks are in the business of making a market in U.S. Treasuries?

    I’ll give you a hint. I said “oh crap, how could they let that happen” some time ago, when the answer was three.

    With deposits from the MTA and its customers as a deposit base, and new fintech, a new company could create a new money center bank (or two).

    https://larrylittlefield.wordpress.com/2017/01/24/like-school-reform-at-this-point-financial-reform-may-be-a-fools-errand/

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