Subways: “New York City is the demented spin-off of Settlers of Catan”

The New York subway system has some problems:

New York City subway service isn’t consistently bad. It isn’t consistently anything. It mixes days of normalcy with surprise disasters whose disruptive effect is something like an air-raid drill, leaving hundreds of thousands of people stranded underground, while their kids wait at schools, their office chairs sit empty, and their shifts begin. If, as former New Jersey Transportation Commissioner Jack Lettiere once put it, transportation is “the game board upon which the economy is played,” New York City is the demented spinoff of Settlers of Catan. The board changes every day, with a debilitating effect on businesses, birthday parties, and everything in between.

That delays have tripled in four years, that subway ridership is declining, that bus ridership is plummeting—these things should alarm Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who runs the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and bears ultimate responsibility for its failings, despite his protests otherwise….

Last Monday, the MTA announced a six-point plan to address delays. “Decades of underinvestment … has led to a system that is excessively vulnerable to failures,” the statement read. (Interestingly, New York has been governed by a Cuomo for 18 of the past 35 years.) The order includes some good news, like the imminent arrival of newer subway cars and deployments of teams to handle broken signals and sick passengers, two major causes of delays. It also appears to have been devised rather quickly—an MTA board member found out about it from the press—and as such, does not account for the subway’s two biggest problems: its ancient signal system and its insanely high construction costs.

Those two things are interrelated and together account for virtually every other problem with the subway. Signals break, hinder the deployment of countdown clocks and driverless trains, and prevent trains from running closer together. High costs impede the development of 20th-century signal technology and other capital improvements, including region-altering projects like the Triboro RX and low-hanging fruit like reopening closed subway entrances. (Read Alon Levy’s excellent coverage of the cost issue and weep.) As long as the MTA fails to address these issues, its troubles will continue.

Bonus points for working Settlers of Catan into a discussion of infrastructure. At the same time, the roads of Settlers might be crazy (particularly when they are blocked by other players) but wouldn’t a better analogy be to a transportation game, perhaps Ticket to Ride?

Seriously though, cities and other levels of government ignore infrastructure at their own peril. It may be easier in the short-term to push off the repairs and costs but the problems only continue to affect users and then are even more costly in terms of money and time down the road.

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