Though our subway is the world’s greatest, we New Yorkers are entitled to feel a little sorry for ourselves when we gaze at the sleek trains, crisp stations, and spiffy digital accoutrements that other cities have. But we can dream. Here are seven improvements to our subway system that we would borrow from around the world—if only we could find a way to pay for them.
(1.) DIGITAL HIGH-RESOLUTION VIDEO CAMERAS that record what goes on in all stations. Anti-government types might not like their every train-boarding’s being observed, but it would arguably reduce any lingering crime in stations, as well as the threat of terrorism. London has them.
(2.) ELECTRONIC SCREENS that announce how long you have to wait until the next train comes. This may sound like an unnecessary luxury—it wouldn’t, after all, speed up the trains—but psychologists tell us that you can wait comfortably two or three times as long for something if you know how long you have to wait. San Francisco has them.
(3.) A DEDICATED REVENUE SOURCE that would reliably pump money into the system year after year. This is the holy grail for transit lovers. To get most of the goodies described here, the transit system needs a bigger funding stream outside the general state and city budgets. Already, there are all kinds of little taxes and fees, including a tiny portion of your cell phone bill. But larger measures are necessary, such as a regional commuter tax, like Paris’s.
(4.) SLEEK NEW STATIONS AND TRAINS that have panache and style. The MTA has renovated roughly a third of its 458 stations but is being relatively conservative in its design owing to budgetary constraints. The new trains it is buying aren’t bad, but they pale beside the ones in Paris with two-toned carpets.
(5.) A UNIVERSAL FARE CARD that not only pays for the subway, path trains, New Jersey Transit, and E-Z Pass tolls, but a pack of gum or a newspaper at the station. Handy at tax time—you can receive a printout that shows your monthly expenditures. They have it in Hong Kong, where it’s called the Octopus Card. They also have them available as rings.
(6.) COMPUTERIZED SIGNALING. Most of the improvements described here would be feasible only if the subway’s system of switches and signals were to rely on computer chips rather than ancient transformers. “That’s the thing that will allow all the other things to happen,” says Robert Paaswell of the University Transportation Research Center at City College. As the recent fire on the C line showed, the subway’s present electrical system is similar to that of a 1953 Chevy, or maybe a 1925 Studebaker, rather than that of a 2005 Lexus. The MTA is converting its electrical systems—slowly. Completing the job is scheduled to take up to 40 years.
(7.) SLIDING GLASS WALLS that stand between the scary open tracks and the people waiting on the platform. Almost every year, people die by being pushed, jumping, or falling in front of oncoming trains. These glass walls would prevent that and make the rest of us a lot more comfortable. They are also amazingly cool. When a train comes into the station, the doors on the train align with the seams on the glass wall—and both open up. Paris’s new Meteor line has them.
Beset by floods and fires and built on technology that predates the Model T, the subway, the very essence of New York, has become frighteningly fragile. And now that the MTA has dug itself into a deep financial hole, it has started traveling back in time to 1975.
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