A shout echoed from the middle of the platform: "Where is the train?!"
It was Candice Sanchez, 26, of the South Bronx. She and her half-brother David Lugo were on an odyssey on this sweltering weekend afternoon to a public pool in Greenwich Village.
Under the MTA's sweeping service cuts, instituted July 27 to offset a nearly $800 million budget shortfall, many trains will arrive less frequently. That much, everyone who's read a tabloid newspaper in the past month knows.
But what has received less attention is that the trains will not just be fewer and farther between, but also more crowded. The days when the MTA tried to guarantee every passenger a seat on off-peak trains are gone. That guarantee was always more of an ideal than a reality. Still, its passing and the arrival of more crowded trains, all day and all week long, stand to alter the way New Yorkers think about their commute and the quality of life they enjoy underground.
Fewer trains with bigger loads
The reduced number of trains and increased amount of crowding are, obviously, flip sides of the same coin. Under one change being implemented by the MTA, the scheduled time between weekend trains has increased: Where the scheduled wait between trains used to be 6 minutes, now it is 8. Where it used to be 8, now it is 10.
In its summary of the recent changes, the MTA notes that even before the cuts, weekend trains were often late because of construction. This adjustment formalizes that lateness: Instead of a delay, it is the new normal. In fact, a wait of up to 15 minutes between weekend daytime trains could now fall within the MTA's guidelines of acceptability, because the authority does not officially categorize a train as late until it is five minutes behind schedule.
The greater wait times translate to many subway lines having fewer and more crowded trains during times when New Yorkers have become accustomed to having a little more elbow room. Trains on the 1, F, N and Q lines will now have 10 to 18 people, or more, standing in every car during busy hours on weekends. Weekday trains are more crowded too: On the 1, 7, A, F, L, J and M lines, off-peak trains are now being scheduled so that, again, there can be between 10 and 18 people standing per car.
Before the changes, the MTA would have considered that many standees unacceptable on an off-peak train. Subway trains are scheduled in part according to "loading guidelines," internal rules about how full each car should be. On most lines, the guidelines have long aimed at an ideal by which off-peak trains carry 100 percent of a seated load—a passenger in every seat, in other words, and a seat for every passenger. Under the new guidelines, which aim for 125 percent of a seated load, even off-peak trains won't have seats for everyone.
In relative terms, against the backdrop of the MTA's funding shortfall, some passengers may not consider this a major hardship. Indeed, New York City Transit spokesman Charles Seaton noted, the guidelines already allow for far more crowded trains during peak hours: between 250 and 290 percent of a seated load, or between 66 and 105 people standing in every car. In practice, the rush-hour crowding on some lines, particularly those along Lexington Avenue, can exceed even that. Considering that the subway cars in use throughout the system are capable of holding between 120 and 230 standing passengers, depending on the model of car, a train with 18 standing passengers per car may not feel truly crowded to many people.
The new rush hour
Still, passenger advocates argue that the less frequent trains, and greater tolerance for crowding, represent a change for the worse in most riders' day-to-day experience on the subway—and a bad omen for transit service, considering that the MTA still has a $400 million budget gap to make up.
Gene Russianoff, spokesman for the NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign and a longtime transportation advocate, argues that the difference from the new guidelines is significant for passenger morale.
"Knowing that I have a much greater chance of standing for my entire trip, it's a total bummer," Russianoff says. Of the minute-to-minute delays now built into the schedule, he added, "That's time added to your trip when you're not spending time with your kids, or cooking dinner, or shopping. It adds up."
Moreover, Bill Henderson, executive director of the New York City Transit Riders' Council and the MTA's citizens advisory committee, says the decreased train frequency associated with the loading changes reduces much-needed margin for error.
If a train has to be taken out of service, for example, the next train has to carry twice as many people. If an express train breaks down, or a sick passenger delays service on a line, other trains become more crowded. When trains are relatively empty, Henderson said, such disruptions can be absorbed. But after the changes, he says, "Because the standard is people standing, then if something goes wrong, you really have a packed situation."
The MTA's cuts to off-peak service come at a time when train usage is less concentrated on rush hour than it used to be. Off-peak ridership has increased drastically, Henderson says, in part because people are working less traditional hours, and in part because today's subway system is used more often, by more people, for more than just getting to work.
More people, more problems
More crowding on subways could affect more than just personal comfort, although the effects can be complex.
Robert McCrie, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who specializes in security issues in public areas, says pickpockets who operate on subways can have a greater advantage on crowded trains. On the other hand, he says, empty train cars, particularly late at night, can also be dangerous.
Ed Galea, a professor at the University of Greenwich who is an expert in fire safety and evacuations, says in an email that in an emergency, increased crowding in subway cars decreases the system's safety margin – the difference between the time needed to get everyone off a train and the time that is actually available. Whether that narrowed margin means the system is unsafe is another question, Galea says, but certain types of evacuations are more difficult when there are more riders. While an evacuation in a station, onto a platform, can flow relatively quickly, Galea says, an emergency that requires moving passengers from car to car, or from cars onto the track bed, could be more dangerous.