An MTA Subway Map I’d Like To See

GIS systems seem to have ushered in a golden age of cartography, with younger generations actually paying attention to less boringly named maps such as “mash-ups” that present information geographically. Well, there is a map I’d like to see the MTA produce and post for the benefit of those younger generations, so they can have an idea what is coming. AMNY reports the agency has acknowledged that service is going into decline, caught between rising ridership and increasing disruption due to maintenance problems. “Trains are falling farther and farther behind since at least March 2006. It's worst in the evening rush where NYC Transit rates itself as running 88% of trains on time in March – the most recent data available – down from almost 92% in March last year” according to this source, and “the number of delays is up as well – an average of 27% over the last 12 months.” The mean distance between failures of the subway cars themselves, whose reduction over 25 years is the pride of New York City Transit, is down 12% over a year.

As readers of my prior posts know, service is going to be a lot worse as the practice of paying for ongoing maintenance and replacement with 30-year debt runs its course, and ongoing maintenance and replacement is cut back, perhaps eliminated. Now those debts – not to mention the state and local tax-free, inflation-adjusted pensions for transit workers who get to retire at 55 and demand to be allowed to retire at 50 – have to be paid for, even as dedicated MTA tax revenues plunge. “The situation is worsened by the news that for the third straight month the MTA saw its revenue from real estate transactions drop below budget estimates,” according to AMNY, but to anyone who isn’t being paid to provide a bogus estimate those transaction tax revenues continue to be greater than the MTA has a right to expect. In the future, everyone will be affected by this. But in New York “the future” and “everyone” don’t matter at all politically. If they did, the New York State legislature wouldn’t have made so many decisions over the past 20 years that have wrecked everyone’s future. So let’s show who will be hurt the most the soonest.

What I want is a new version of the New York City subway map. But instead of showing stations, dots on the map would show signal interlockings (places where the trains can switch tracks), with the size of the dot equal to the size of the interlocking measured by its number of switches. The color of those dots, and the colors of subway lines connecting them, would not be based on the Manhattan trunk route as it is on the actual subway route map. Instead, the dots would be based on the age of the interlocking signal system and the lines would be based on the age of the automatic signals, stops and stop cables (you don’t have to know what those are, because the MTA does).

For signal systems 0 to 19 years old, the color could be blue, as in blue chip. For those 20 to 39 years old, the color could be green, as in good to go. For those 40 to 59 years old the color could be yellow, for beware. New York City Transit estimates the useful life of its signal systems to be 50 years, but aside from the 1970s fiscal crisis it has been replacing its signal systems at a rate of a new system every 60 years. Because of that hiatus, some systems are much older. Those from 60 to 75 years old can be presented in red on the map. Some engineers say conventional signal systems can last 75 years before disaster. Those 75 years or older can be presented in (fade to) black.

Like the Flushing Line. “’Every time my blackberry goes off it seems like we’re having another signal problem on the 7 line,’ Howard Roberts, NYC Transit president said” according to AMNY. I am shocked, shocked, that there are signal problems going on! Wasn’t the replacement of the automatic signals on the Flushing Line part of Tier II or Tier III in the proposed MTA capital plan — ie. not likely to occur anytime soon? Yup — read the earlier post linked above. And guess what; a new hiatus, or something close to that, is pretty much a given as a result of the financial decisions of the past. Hope you enjoyed the benefits of those decisions, got your piece, sold your house, and are about to retire and move out. No? Then the New York State Legislature has taken a big axe to your future. You personally. Treated you like a child in the New York City schools over the past 20 years.

The Flushing line is discrete and separate. Not so most of the rest of the system. So in the route legend for the map, the route markers – for the F train, the 2 train, etc. – would take the color of the section of track it traverses that has the oldest signal system, because a problem anywhere along the line would be enough to wreck your ride to or from work.

Now I have a table with the information required to produce the map on my hard drive, but in addition to not wanting to be sued by the MTA, that table is now four years out of date. But the MTA certainly has that information. The map would probably take someone half a day. A consultant would probably produce it for a mere $10 million.

Why just stop at signals? How about another map for track. Another one for stations?

Punting the ball to Richard Ravitch isn’t going to make a bit of difference. There are people who matter, people who have deals, they get paid first, and don’t put any back when the economy turns down. They don’t care about anyone or anything else, and because they are in charge and cannot be removed or even challenged, they don’t have to. Taxes are going up. Fares are going up. And services are going down. So the MTA needs to produce maps for people who need to worry about how to get to work over the next two decades, not just today. Showing all the transit routes as if they can all be relied on doesn’t provide that information.

Once the MTA gets through with its map, perhaps NYC DOT can produce a map with the streets in colors based on the most recent date of repaving or reconstruction. The Department of Education can produce a series of maps with large school icons colored by the most recent brick re-pointing, roof replacement, rewiring or re-plumbing. Etc.

Someone felt free to create the situation as it is. OK, show us the situation that has been created in a way that perhaps someone can understand.