Is it just about fares, now? MTA tries bringing subway riders back

The MTA wants to bring subway riders back, but if it’s just about the fares, a rocky road lies ahead. How well can the agency handle rejection?

by David Stone

Special to the Roosevelt Island Daily News

A New York Times article M.T.A. Postpones Fare Increase as It Tries to Lure Back Riders suggests that’s the one card they have to play. Or, at least, the main one.

But it’s the wrong tool and emphasizes the agency’s detachment from riders’ real concerns. Sure, a howl erupts every time a fare increase looms, and politicians stand tall, “fighting for my constituents.”

Yet those are all reactions stirred from the bottom after proactivity served as a red-headed stepchild for decades.

That is, the MTA subway rider experience stinks, and nobody does much of anything about. Fares at $2.75 for a ride that can take you from one end of the city to all the others and back are incredible bargains, and a variety of discount programs for the needy make them even better.

Now that pandemic adjustments gave subway riders a taste of life without the constant filth, stink and crowding, the MTA mst convince riders that that bargain is worth the ugly experience.

And the ugly experience? Seems they don’t even know it’s a factor.

Subway riders’ experience

Once you slide or tap your way into the system, what’s it like, taking advantage of this great bargain? I’ll use my own home station on Roosevelt Island as a main example.

Surrounded by fresh, modern residential towers and well maintained gardens, the Roosevelt Island station sits like a concrete and sheet metal carbuncle on Main Street.

The Roosevelt Island experience for subway riders begins even before you enter. The station looks old and weatherbeaten, but it’s, in fact, a youngster in the system. Just 30 years old, the MTA built it long after the tired street level stairways first guided riders underground.

The lack of reliable maintenance, a hallmark of public works projects, renders what was an innovative approach into an eyesore.

Think about it this way. If you live Jersey and must drive, how eager are you to get behind the wheel of a car looking like that?

Bloomingdales and bust…

What shocked me most about the subways when I came to New York City in 1990 was the contrast between the elegance of a Bloomies upstairs and the filth and degradation below.

It was true at Rockefeller Center, Herald Square and Brooklyn Heights as well. Still is. Well-kept public spaces above, degraded facilities below.

You’d think the owners at Macy’s or Bloomingdales would protest, but then, you finally realize it’s consistent with a city sharply divided between rich and all the rest of us.

For subway riders, it’s stark.

Roughly a decade ago, probably longer, the MTA assigned crews to tackle persistent water leaks leaks in the station. The result was a never buttoned up Rube Goldberg machine that’s been nesting ground for masses of black mold that’s never treated.

If they can send a man to the moon, how come that can’t figure out the mysteries of underground water flows? Or seal a tunnel?

Plenty of mold here too and other accumulated filth dripped onto a air conduit. Subway riders on Roosevelt Island are treated to this every time they board a train headed deeper into Manhattan.

Is there anything more depressing than waiting for the next train after an overcrowded one passes on a winter morning?

Roosevelt Island Subway at Morning Rush
Yes, of course, there is, but the cumulative effect of this, day after day, reduces the value of bargain fares.

Roosevelt Island subway riders appeal, but the MTA can’t figure out how to get a few more rush hour trains through the station. At Rockefeller Center, F Trains meet up with half-empty Ms serving the same Queens neighborhoods.

Escalator treads caked with black grit. They arrive shiny and bright, but a lack of routine cleaning soon leaves them coated with filth.
Poorly engineered track beds leave garbage-filled pools of standing water between the rails. Rats sometimes scurry around in the wet debris.

How does the fare bargain sit with subway riders confronted with trash tossed or kicked from platforms onto rails? It’s even worse when the trash floats in standing water.

Three escalators, no service.

While it’s not usual seeing all three escalators out at the same time, it happens. Non-working, unreliable escalators and elevators exist throughout the system. A factor making Roosevelt Island worse is that lower level escalators work, sending passengers up to this level, leaving them here without forewarning.

If you’re frail or physically limited, what do you do now?

This little stream has flowed intermittently through the southbound platform for decades. It’s anybody’s guess why the caution sign leans against the wall instead of spreading its feet protectively across the platform. Note the scarred wall and jerry-built pipes, remnants of historic efforts at capturing the water.

Subway Riders and Fares Conclusion

After years of neglect, maybe blindness, it’s unlikely that the MTA will ever awaken to the poor experiences of everyday subway riders or begin fixing them.

And now, with riders awakened, they won’t bring people back underground by freezing fares alone.

Guess who’s pockets they’ll pick to cover the losses…

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