|The Manhattan Institutes|
Center for Rethinking Development
Ideas that shape the citys planning, housing, and development
"How can some rain shut down the greatest city in the world?" asked the Radio Free Europe reportera question troubling many New Yorkers following the mighty subway washout of August 8. Reacting to the poor communications that accompanied the storm, Congressman Anthony Weiner and City Council Transportation Chair John Liu demanded that cell phone service be enabled in the subway system. Riders envied the trackside electronic signs of Washington, London, and Paris, and even looked longingly across the Hudson to where New Jersey Transit's 46,000 "My Transit" subscribers received up-to-the-minute transit alerts and service updates during the downpour.
But slick new technology alone would not have helped that Wednesday morning. The subway system has an extensive network of pumps in daily operation. In the best of circumstances, the pumps can handle up to about 1.5 inches of rainfall an hour, but they cannot handle the 2-3 inches that fell in a single 60-minute period that day. In a torrential rain, temporary track rivers pick up debris along the way and deposit it at low points, clogging drains that transit workers must clean manually. And it's not only the transit infrastructure that is problematic; Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) officials also pointed to the city's overburdened drainage network. In most of the city, storm runoff ends up in the same pipes as waste water; a major rain can overwhelm the system, leading to environmentally hazardous combined sewer overflows, as well as flooding above and below ground.
Keeping tracks clear of trash is the most fundamental way to prevent subway flooding (and fires), so more regular sweeping is an effective, if unglamorous and labor-intensive, maintenance practice. When there is a disastrous event, the recovery is also highly manual and painstaking. For example, after a deluge, safely restoring power and signal systems requires electrical workers to dry equipment and then inspect it. Essentially, they hand-test each segment of right-of-way before turning it back on. The human dimension in infrastructure maintenance is indispensable. All the cutting-edge technology in the world cannot substitute for people with the right skills and training, following the right procedures.
WHAT WE HAVE HERE IS A FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE
Despite the widespread emphasis on technological remedies such as cell service underground, real-time electronic information signs, and service updates by text message, the truth is that the answer does not have to be high-tech. It is possible now to get riders prompt and pertinent informationif NYC Transit (and, for that matter, its sister MTA agencies)reorganizes out of existing management silos and adopts new practices.
The numbered (historically 'IRT') and lettered (historically 'BMT' and 'IND') subway lines have separate management structures. In many ways they continue to function as separate companieseven though dispatchers for all work in the same room in the same command center. Dispatchers are neither expected nor encouraged to learn and communicate that, for example, although the Christopher Street station on the '1' is out of service, riders may walk a few blocks to the West 4th Street complex, serving the 'A', 'B', 'C', 'D', 'E', 'F', 'Q', and 'V'. A change of culture and training demands to be made here.
Similarly, dispatchers seldom communicate with the command center and hierarchy responsible for station agents. Press accounts of the August 8 storm complained that station staff are equipped only with bullhorns and whiteboards to get service information to riders. While far from ideal, those could be effective communication toolsif management provided the agents with timely and accurate news to transmit.
Right now, only a small operations planning group independent of the subway and bus departments looks at NYC Transit's system universallyunbound by rivalries among the various lines and transportation modes. For example, the Daily News reported that hundreds of empty express buses could have picked up stranded straphangers, but didn't because no one told bus drivers to alter their routes. Inadequate technology is not to blame here. Transit's bus department has a sophisticated radio system, but nobody used it to broadcast the message about closed train stations. In all likelihood the subway dispatchers never communicated with the bus dispatcherswho are, admittedly, in a different command center, but still just a phone call away.
INFRASTRUCTURE'S MOMENT IN THE SUN
Politicians responded with various high-tech recommendations. Liu and Weiner wanted cell phones in the subway. And, along with State Senator John Sabini and City Council Member David Yassky, Weiner renewed his call for fiber-optic stress-detection on bridges. City Council Finance Chair David Weprin and Comptroller William Thompson urged Mayor Bloomberg to establish a special commission to study the systems that make the metropolis work.
Bloomberg administration spokesman Stu Loeser responded that City Hall recently spent 18 months performing such a study in preparing PlaNYC, the strategic plan for a "sustainable" city of 2030. He went on to say, "We don't need another commission to study the problems. We need funding for the solutions and welcome any and all help in that area."
Loeser is right. The PlaNYC effort began as a way to prepare for the housing needed by a growing city, but soon evolved into an integrated examination of land use, transportation, energy, and water. Much of the rhetoric around it has focused on environmental issuesenhancing air and water quality and reducing carbon emissions. But along with managing growth and improving the environment, PlaNYC highlights a third "key challenge": maintaining the city's aging infrastructure.
CONGESTION PRICING AND MORE
Congestion pricing has grabbed so much of the press attention and public debate that it is easy to forget that PlaNYC includes 126 other initiatives. Along with closing the funding gap needed to bring transportation to a state-of-good-repair, recommendations include facilitating the modernization of the electric grid and an expansion of the natural-gas infrastructure.
Some of the plan's solutions are notably low-tech. With much of the city's water distribution network more than a century old, the mayor proposes to replace 80 miles of water main annually, rather than the 60 miles of current practice. In waterfront areas especially, the administration aims to increase the use of "high level storm sewers" that divert as much as half the rainfall directly into waterways, bypassing the combined sewer system. Perhaps most basically of all, the plan calls for more trees and planted areas to absorb storm water. Of course, grass and trees require maintenance too, but botanical initiatives contribute to the city both aesthetically and environmentally.
BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER
The mayor's visionary strategic plan illustrates his intent to upgrade the city's physical infrastructure. The 311 call center's advances in data-driven management and success with interagency cooperation demonstrate his interest in upgrading the human infrastructure that runs the city. Separately, each of these is an impressive achievement. The challenge for his final 16 months as chief executive is to bring it all togetherapplying 311 management principles to infrastructure maintenance and operation.
On September 17, the City Council's Transportation Committee will hold an oversight hearing on the state of the city's bridges.
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