Why is New York’s Transit “Always in Trouble”?

New York City transit supporters are on fire today as their transit agency, the MTA, announced deep service cuts.  Service cuts are happening all over the US this year, as the economic crisis has cut into most of the local funding streams on which agencies rely.  In many cases, including California and New York, the problems have been compounded by raids on state transit funding streams to help balance state budgets.

There seems to be plenty of blame to go around for New York MTA’s especially dire straits.  The New York Times offers three expert views on their “Room for Debate” forum, though the three don’t seem to be disagreeing.  Two emphasize the need for more secure government funding, while the third points out the need to push back harder on labor costs, and it sounds like they can all be right.  None of them says that service cuts are a good thing.

But here’s an eerie echo of my last post, where I pointed out that sometimes transit agencies don’t deliver environmental outcomes because they’re being required to serve other competing goals.  This stunning graphic from Second Avenue Sagas tells a similar story about the New York MTA, but in the area of budgeting rather than service design.


It appears that in 1995, the governments of the State of New York (NYS), New York City (NYC), and the MTA decided to split three ways the cost of discounted transit fares for students.

Student ridership (high school and below) is a mixed blessing for transit agencies.  You’ll hear a lot about how great it is that kids are “forming transit habits” at an early age.  But school-kids consume more than their per-capita share of the transit budget, and not just because they are more likely to damage buses and trains than adults are.  Schools tend to generate extremely high and sharp peaks — very brief periods of the day when huge numbers of students want to travel.  Extreme peaking means overcrowding that disrupts schedules and that often requires extra buses to be pulled out for very short shifts.  Very short work shifts, in turn, mean higher per-hour labor costs, because labor contracts usually define a minimum shift period (often 4 hours) and the period of school demand is often much shorter.

During the 1990s, when I was a consulting planner in California, something similar was happening all over the state.  School districts, facing budget cuts, were choosing to cut school bus service rather than cut education.  The problem of school transportation was shifted, without much funding, to the transit agencies.  The worst part of this was that once school districts no longer cared about transport, they no longer thought about transport efficiency when they set their bell times, so transit agencies were constantly dealing with unreasonable expectations from schools about when they could serve them.  If four different schools all let out at 3:10 PM and want you to be there waiting, that’s four buses you have to buy and maintain and four short driver shifts you have to run.  And the parents aren’t yelling at the school, they’re yelling at you, the transit agency.  When the schools had to do their own transport, they were more likely to stagger bell times so that longer shifts and fewer buses could do the same work.

So student discounts that push student ridership higher are going to be expensive for a transit agency, even if the agency’s being compensated for the lost revenue.  But the MTA generously agreed to pay a third of the discount’s cost, while the City and State were supposed to pick up the other two thirds.  The chart shows what happened next.   For some reason, as costs of this discount continued to grow due to growing numbers of children, the MTA found itself making up the difference.  (Note to dealmakers: state the deal in percentages, not dollars!)  Finally, in the budget crises of 2008, the State cut its own contribution.  Suddenly, MTA was paying the full cost of a discount that didn’t really serve the agency’s mission.  And of course, when they discussed reducing it, the story was cruel MTA trying to balance the budget on the backs of poor students.

It’s a brutal reminder that in many US urban areas the multiple layers of government don’t always support each other, and that especially in lean times they are strongly tempted to renege on the all-too-informal agreements that glue the system together.  In such moments, it often comes down to pure political clout, and special-purpose governments such as regional transit agencies usually have less clout than the governments of states or major cities.  So sometimes, as in this case, they end up bearing costs because they were the weakest party of the deal.

So “Why is the MTA always in trouble?”   When even the transit-friendly New York Times frames the question that way, we really do have a problem.  If you’re told that your neighbor’s teenage son is “always in trouble,” aren’t you going to assume that the trouble must be his fault? We’re being encouraged to think of transit, or at least the MTA, as having some kind of ongoing sustainability problem or weakness. To compound the insult, we hear talk of whether MTA needs a “bailout.”  Cap’n Transit explores how these “frames” work in a must-read post today.

The MTA may be “always in trouble” because it hasn’t made tough deals, but the toughness of the deals it can make, especially with more powerful levels of government, depends on the public’s ability to blame the correct layer of government for the problem.  This is hard to do, because overlapping governments are often not as clear as they should be about who’s responsible for what.  Cap’n Transit also discussed this a year ago, here.

The only real long-term solution to this problem is for MTA to figure out how to be more transparent.  Organizations don’t really like to be transparent, because if you’re perfectly transparent you’re invisible, and then nobody appreciates you.  But if you’re completely opaque, you’ll end up wearing all the blame, because blame and praise are both like light in this case.

Part of transparency is avoiding deals like the three way funding split of the New York school subsidy.  Don’t just split the subsidy three ways.  Instead, do the harder work of deciding why we fund school transportation and which level of government should be funding that outcome.  If you’re going to split the subsidy three ways, be really clear about what happens when the demand rises and/or someone reneges on the deal.  The correct answer should be that the subsidy drops in ways that students will notice, and all parties to the deal refer complaints to the party who really dropped the ball.  Another angle would be for the MTA to demand clear separate pots of funding for (a) its ridership-maximizing mission, with all the environmental and urban life benefits, and (b) its social service mission, which is about responding to the needs of specific groups with low-ridership buses or fare discounts.  Let the legislature decide how much it wants MTA to spend on each goal, and then get out of the way and let them do it. (Much more on this angle here.)

And aim, too, for clearer divisions of responsibility.  If we’re talking about funding for student transportation, there’s a credible argument that it should go through the education budget.  The taxpayer doesn’t care.  It’s the same dollar out of her pocket whether it’s an education subsidy or a transport subsidy.  Educational institutions have massive impacts on the real costs of student transportation through (a) how they set belltimes and (b) where they locate schools.  Of course, that would imply that everyone else is also responsible for the transport cost impacts of where they choose to locate; if we opened those floodgates, the sudden transparency might be blinding.

For excellent wall-to-wall coverage of the New York transit budget crisis, see Second Avenue Sagas.  Chris Leary at On Transport is also on the case.  And for veil-stripping commentary on what’s really going on inside the language, keep an eye on Cap’n Transit.

Finally, to New York commenters, please feel free to correct me on matters of fact, but note that I am not claiming MTA’s problems are solely due to the school subsidy, nor assigning broader blame for their troubles.  This story isn’t really for New Yorkers at all; it’s for everyone else who’s ever wondered why their transit agency seems to be “always in trouble.”  Short answer: it may not be their fault.  So don’t automatically rip into your transit agency when they cut service, at least not until you understand who else may have let you down.

15 Responses to Why is New York’s Transit “Always in Trouble”?

  1. Jennifer December 17, 2009 at 7:49 am #

    It’s hard sometimes, too, to call out another agency or political institution that’s causing problems because the political world of any city is a small one, and everything is interrelated in ways that makes everyone hesitant to offend anyone, I think.

  2. Alon Levy December 17, 2009 at 3:05 pm #

    For larger agencies, isn’t there a way of using the fact that school peaks are earlier than work peaks? School typically starts at 8-8:30 and work at 9, so the am peak is a little different. The pm peak is very different, to the point that New York City Transit starts pm peak hour service on some buses an hour earlier on school days.

  3. Davsot December 17, 2009 at 4:41 pm #

    And while transit dies, highways are being repaired and re built. WUT THU FUK

  4. rhywun December 17, 2009 at 7:45 pm #

    I do recall that where I grew up (Rochester), elementary school started around 9 am and high school at 7:30 am, specifically to ease the scheduling of yellow school buses. There was a lot of bickering over that from parents who had to get up at 6 am to get their kids out of bed. My mom solved it by letting me do it on my own 🙂

  5. anonymouse December 17, 2009 at 9:01 pm #

    Highways aren’t being repaired and rebuilt, they’re just building new ones while the old ones rot and fall down.

  6. Nelson December 18, 2009 at 5:27 pm #

    1. Remember the MTA surplus from a few years ago? It could have been set aside for a “rainy day”, but it instead went to the TWU.
    2. If schools peak at 3PM and the normal peak is at 5PM, then some of the school vehicles can be reused later in the day.
    3. The MTA is not “generous” when it provides students with free rides. Generosity is not defined by giving tax dollars to others.
    4. Government services are chronically “in trouble” because they usually provide services at below-market values. Walmart would also be “in trouble” if it sold everything at 60% off.
    5. The one part of the MTA that is not in trouble is Bridges and Tunnels. Perhaps if subway fares were also ten dollars, they would be fine too.
    6. As with all other government agencies, the MTA’s function has calcified. Politics leaves no room for innovation, no rewards for doing well, and no penalties for failure. Instead, we are left with a bus system, a police department, a school system, a post office, etc., etc., etc. whose purpose is the status quo in perpetuity as the rest of the word changes.

  7. Alon Levy December 19, 2009 at 1:35 pm #

    1. The bonus didn’t go to the TWU – the TWU got the same raise as everyone else. The bonus went to service improvements, like running the 3 at night.
    2. The 3/5 pm peak issue is there – just look at MTA schedules. But the am peak is generally the worse peak – more people start working at 9 am than finish at 5 pm – and there there is less of a gap.
    3-6. Close your Ayn Rand novels and live in the real world. If you want to stay in a fantasy world where the police is privatized and where there are no public schools, be my guest.

  8. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org December 19, 2009 at 9:02 pm #

    Re Alon’s first comment, namely: For larger agencies, isn’t there a way of using the fact that school peaks are earlier than work peaks? School typically starts at 8-8:30 and work at 9, so the am peak is a little different. The pm peak is very different, to the point that New York City Transit starts pm peak hour service on some buses an hour earlier on school days.”
    This varies a bit from one country to another, but in general, the morning peak is sharper than the afternoon peak because school and work commutes happen at about the same time. A difference between 8 and 9 AM, such as you suggest, really wouldn’t be enough to get the two peaks separated, even if such a separation existed. In my experience, most school and work commuting overlaps. This is very expensive for transit agencies, as it’s the height of the highest peak that determines the fleet requirement. If work and school peaks were as separate in the morning as they are in the afternoon, you’d see the same transport task done with smaller fleets.

  9. spyone December 21, 2009 at 7:20 am #

    I got to watch the reverse of this happening locally this year with some amusement: one of the local cities used the local transit to get kids to school, but decided it would cost less to buy buses and run separate school buses.
    They announced that back in June, but it wasn’t until late August that parents figured out what that would mean: staggered bell times. Rather than wastefully buy enough buses to serve all the schools at once, the city had staggered bell times so they could re-use buses in much the same way as the town I grew up in: pick up all the high school kids first, then the middle school kids, and finally the elementary school kids.
    When the bus schedule for the new school year came out, parents suddenly realized that it meant the high school kids would leave the house 2 hours before the elementary school kids.
    Now, where I grew up most parents found that system worked pretty good. High school kids got themselves up and ready, maybe seeing Mom just before they went out the door, then Mom got the middle school kids ready and on the stop, finally having a little “just us” time with the elementary school kid before putting him on the bus and then leaving for work. This works just fine, unless …. what if Mom needs to get to work before the elementary school starts.
    That’s what parents were complaining about: they needed the high school kids to put the elementary school kids on the bus, because Mom had already left for work. Mom needs to put in a full 8 hours at work and still get home to meet the school bus, and school generally runs about 7 1/2 hours, so ….
    The high school kids can’t babysit after school: those without afterschool sports or clubs have jobs.
    I raised this just to serve as a reverse example of the principle that school systems, freed of direct responsibility for managing the buses that serve them, will arrange their schedules in ways that don’t account at all for the problems for the bus operator. But I wonder if the local transit agency (Hampton Roads Transit) would have offered a more favorable bid for the service of carrying school kids for Hampton if the school system had offered to stagger their bell times exactly as they decided to when running their own buses. Was buying their own buses the cheapest option when comparing apples to apples?

  10. Nathanael December 22, 2009 at 7:04 pm #

    Unfortunately, the *fundamental* problem goes back, as it always does, to the New York State Legislature, which has been plain broken for 20 years, maybe 30.
    You can follow the shenanigans at thealbanyproject.com.
    The NYS legislature has the root powers over the MTA (like everything else in the state, really), and often chooses to use them to make a big mess. It’s been doing the same thing to the school districts, and to, oh, everything else I can think of.

  11. numbat December 27, 2009 at 10:34 am #

    Why is it that this only seems to happen in the USA? Maybe they need to drastically rethink their transit funding system?

  12. EngineerScotty December 27, 2009 at 2:59 pm #

    Were Schwarzeneger to announce that he was going to close a freeway or two, due to inadequate funds to keep them in safe condition, there would be an uproar.

  13. EngineerScotty December 28, 2009 at 8:55 am #

    Actually, I think my last post is in response to a similar thread concerning California over on the transport politic. 🙂

  14. coach tote bags December 20, 2010 at 2:01 am #

    I love Volkswagen’s Beetles very much. I think that this advertisement was extremely curious for that time.

  15. Michael Pal January 23, 2011 at 3:09 pm #

    The MTA is always in financial trouble mainly because the lack of an adequate dedicated funding stream.