Friday, February 29, 2008

Adopt a station?

Yesterday, the Gay Recluse observed here that the MTA could do us all a huge favor and renovate some stations, which leads me to today's post.

Inwoodists, Upper Manhattanites, and those from the boroughs are likely to spend significant amounts of their time (and, ultimately, lives) underground, especially if they work in midtown or downtown. While I would prefer to spend my precious daylight hours above ground enjoying the air and scenery--my favorite form of urban transportation is the streetcar--the subway is our best option at present for rapid commuting around the city:
  • Elevated trains are lovely to ride as a passenger (light, views), but they mar the street landscape, block light to houses and businesses, and make a lot of noise.
  • Buses are useful for local door-to-door service (example: 207 St. to 231 St.) and for transporting the elderly and disabled (given that so many subway stations are not elevator-equipped or wheelchair accessible), but they get mired in Manhattan above-ground traffic just like every other automobile. I remember taking the BxM1 express bus one morning to the East Side. It was a cushy bus that flew right along, almost making a convert of me--until it got to 125 St., which point it crawled along with the rest of the traffic to 42 St.
  • Any subway alternatives--monorails, light rail, PRT--would require massive planning and infrastructure investments that are highly unlikely to emerge any time soon, if ever.
Considering that much of the Manhattan underground constitutes a vast civic space, can't our city show it some love, work a little beautification magic, and brighten our lives? Wouldn't it be an uplifting experience to walk into a reasonably clean station with some aesthetic and historic interest? Riding the 1 train, it's clear that the IRT designers paid attention to station aesthetics: beautiful mosaics can be found at several points on the line, including 191, 168, and 66 streets. On the 4/5/6 line, there's some delectable glazed ceramic at Astor Place, and City Hall is allegedly the crown jewel of the system, although, alas, it has been closed to the public since 1945 (the folks at Forgotten NY manage to get in there occasionally).

So, what could the city do to help us aesthetically deprived subway riders out?
  • More aggressive station cleaning: who wants to watch rats forage among trash-laden tracks while sniffing eau de pissoir? And is there a reason why everything has to look so dirty? I thought tile was supposed to be easy to clean.
  • Installation of durable artworks (mosaics, metal sculpture) by local artists in stations; this would have the side benefit of supporting and promoting local artists. Tom Otterness's Life Underground installation at 14 St. is one fine example.
  • Renovation that respects a station's design history and intentions by preserving architectural details and other aesthetically significant features (such as mosaics and art tile), while installing visually pleasing and easy-to-clean materials where possible. (On a side note, making all stations accessible to the elderly and disabled is a must.)
  • Renovation that adds interesting visual details to otherwise aesthetically challenged stations (175 St).
  • With the surfeit of architectural and design talent floating around this city, why not hold design competitions that would encourage talent to submit plans for low-cost station beautification? It could even be a reality show--send in the Fab 5, some ambitious students from Parsons or Columbia, or whomever--to give your favorite decrepit station a makeover.
  • "Clean up your station day" initiatives
  • An "Adopt a Station" program that would encourage businesses and prominent individuals to fund station maintenance and beautification in exchange for in-station promotion such as a wall plaque, posted ads, etc. Heck, I could live with a McDonald's-branded station if it was tastefully done. An example is the Columbus Circle station, which has an entrance maintained by the Time Warner Center.

How do you think the city should go about beautifying its stations?

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Speak out in favor of congestion pricing

If you support reducing traffic, cutting commute times, and funding public transportation across all neighborhoods in New York City, write your legislators now!

Take the Super A Train

So let's kick off this series with my pet peeve favorite topic: the A train. I love it, except when I hate it.

The A runs close to my door and gets me to just about anywhere I need to go in Manhattan. And it's express. When all is right with the world, it gets me downtown in about 35 minutes, which is a beautiful thing.

But there's a catch: starting at (the rather early hour of) 10:30 p.m., it runs local. And it runs local every time the MTA does track work on the line, which is, oh, about every weekend (2007, anyone?). For some reason, they also like to run a special shuttle periodically between 207th and 168th streets, which can really slow you down, or just shut down that part of the line entirely and run free buses.

Have you ever noticed the train engaging in other strange behaviors late at night? Like traveling at half-speed, or stopping inexplicably for several minutes when you're halfway through a tunnel, or waiting interminably at a platform with its doors hanging open? Or not showing up for 40 minutes when they're supposed to be running every 20? Any of these unfortunate events can suck the joy out of even the most ardent Inwoodist's life.

Now, I don't want to risk getting killed or seriously injured or simply suffering through train break-downs and delays every time I hop on the subway (which is just about every day, multiple times a day), so I understand the need for maintenance, but can't the MTA do any better?

Go visit Paris and see how a world-class subway system can run. Their trains are clean, efficient, and run on time.

So here are my proposals for improving service on the A train, running from smallest to largest:
  • FASTER, PUSSYCAT: Lengthen the hours of operation for express service--at the very least, run the A express until midnight Su-Th and 1:30 a.m. F-Sa. Even better, run it express 24 hours per day, like the D train. (Have you ever experienced 145 St. envy?) This will require, of course, keeping the C train in operation during extended hours.
  • DROP STOPS AND ROLL: Eliminate unnecessary stops that are already covered by local service and do not provide significant transit links--145 St, Canal St, Chambers St
  • EXTEND IT: Build local tracks up to 207th St, then cover all stops between 207 and 168 streets with the C.
Now we have it: the super A train. It runs 24 hours and services the following stops: 207, 168, 125, 59, 42, 34, 14, 4, Broadway-Nassau. Imagine, all of Manhattan in just 9 stops, with Midtown only 4 stops away.

Since I believe in self-determination, I'll let the Brooklynites figure out where the Super A should stop in their borough.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Improved mass transit

With all the buzz about congestion pricing as a solution to Manhattan's traffic woes, I've been thinking about ways to improve getting folks around in this city and the quality of life for those who make this island their home or place of work. Ultimately, to get more cars off the road, we need to do more than just charge drivers more money to negotiate our streets. When prices for everyday commodities rise suddenly and dramatically, many may grumble or protest at first, but they go ahead and pay the higher price and soon mentally adjust to the situation as "normal." For example, have significant price increases at the gas pump really reduced the number of drivers on the road in any meaningful way?

To get people out of their cars, we need to make mass transit not just a viable but desirable alternative to driving.

Now, I admit, living in New York, I'm spoiled. I gave up my car when I moved here and have never looked back. I can get anywhere I need to go within the city 24 hours a day using subways, buses, my own two feet, and, if I'm really desperate, a cab.

And yet...

How many of you living in Inwood and the Heights have encountered the following situations?
  • You cut short your fun evening out downtown or in Brooklyn because it's 10:25 and the A is about to turn into a pumpkin and you don't want to spend 75 minutes getting home when you have to get up at the ass crack of dawn to get to work the next day.

  • You discover that yet again, for the 20th weekend in a row, the A is going to be running local (which seemed to be the case for almost all of 2007). Oh, and just to slow you down even further, the MTA is running a "special" shuttle between 207th and 168th streets. You'd better bring a good book or some rocking tunes for that 90-minute commute to the East Village.

  • It's 2:20 a.m. and you're ready to slit your wrists at 50th St. because it's taken the A 40 minutes to show up (despite the MTA's claim that they run every 20 minutes late nights).

  • You're in the 'Wood and you need to get to the East Side... don't get me started.

Is it any wonder why some people persist in driving their cars around this island?

So in the next few entries, I'm going to put out some ideas for improving our mass transit and quality of life on Mannahatta. I'm just getting started with this blog, and I may not be able to post all that frequently, so be patient, okay?