I. Findings

What do subway riders want?

They want short waits, trains that arrive regularly, a chance for a seat, a clean car and understandable announcements that tell them what they need to know. That’s what MTA New York City Transit’s own polling of its riders shows.1

This "State of the Subways" Report Card tells riders how their lines do on these key aspects of service. We look at six measures of subway performance for the city’s 22 major subway lines, using recent data compiled by MTA New York City Transit.2 Much of the information has not been released publicly before on a line-by-line basis. Most of the measures are for all or the last half of 2008.

Our Report Card has three parts:

First is a comparison of service on 22 lines, as detailed in the attached tables.

Second, we give an overall “MetroCard Rating”3 to 21 of the 22 lines.4

Third, the report contains one-page profiles on each of the 22 lines. These are intended to provide riders, officials and communities with an easy-to-use summary of how their line performs compared to others.

This is the twelfth Subway Report Card issued by the Straphangers Campaign since 1997.5

 

Our findings show the following picture of how New York City’s subways are doing:

  1. The best subway line in the city is the 7 with a “MetroCard Rating” of $1.55. The 7 ranked highest because it performs above average on five measures: frequency of scheduled service, regularity of service, delays caused by mechanical breakdowns, seat availability and fewer dirty cars. The line did not get a higher rating because it performed average on announcements. The 7 runs between Times Square in Manhattan and Flushing in Queens.

  2. The L came in second behind the 7 with a MetroCard Rating of $1.50. The L performed above average on five measures — frequency of scheduled service, regularity of service (first place), delays caused by mechanical breakdowns, dirty cars (first place) and announcements. The line did not get a higher rating because it performed in last place on the chance of getting a seat during rush hour. The L runs between 14th Street/Eighth Avenue in Manhattan and Canarsie, Brooklyn. In our 2008 survey, the L line performed best. (See Table Three.)

  3. Both the L and 7 are in a “line general managers” program, which has promise to improve service. According to an October 27, 2008 release by New York City Transit, this program is “an ambitious pilot endeavor aimed at improving subway service by putting the responsibility for individual lines into the hands of transit professionals who are ready, willing and able to tackle problems, address customer concerns and take a hands-on approach to running their own railroads.”6  We are able to compare only half of the measures in our 2008 report to this one: On the 7, the number of cars that were clean and had correct announcements improved, with the breakdown rate largely unchanged. On the L, clean cars increased and announcements stayed close to 100%. However, car breakdowns worsened by 19%; line managers are accountable for car breakdown rates.

  4. The C was ranked the worst subway line, with a MetroCard Rating of 50 cents. The C line ranked worst on car breakdowns and performs below average on all five other measures: level of scheduled service, regularity of service, chance of getting a seat during rush hour, car cleanliness and announcements. The C line operates between East New York in Brooklyn and Upper Manhattan. In last year’s survey, the W was ranked as the worst line.

  5. Overall, we found a mixed picture for subway service on the three measures we can compare over time — car breakdowns, car cleanliness and announcements. (We were unable to compare the remaining three measures due to changes in the methodology used by New York City Transit between this report and our last report.)
  6. • The car fleet breakdown rate worsened from an average mechanical failure every 149,646 miles in 2007 to 134,795 in 2008 — a drop of almost 10%. This is a bad trend, raising questions about the condition and maintenance of the aging transit fleet. We found: fifteen lines worsened (1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, A, C, E, F, G, L, Q, R and V), while seven lines improved (2, B, D, J/Z, M, N and W).
    • Accurate and understandable subway car announcements improved, going from 85% in our last report to 90% in the current report. We found that: sixteen lines improved (1, 6, 7, A, B, C, E, F, G, J/Z, M, N, Q, R, V and W), two worsened slightly (D and L) and four remained unchanged (2, 3, 4 and 5).
    • Subway cars went from 87% rated clean in our last report to 91% in our current report. We found sixteen lines improved (1, 5, 7, B, D, E, F, G, J/Z, L, M, N, Q, R, V and W), four worsened (4, 6, A and C) and two did not change (2 and 3).

  7. There are large disparities in how subway lines perform.7
  8. Breakdowns: Cars on the N had the best record on delays caused by car mechanical failures: once every 327,191 miles. Cars on the C line had the worst, experiencing breakdown delays more than five times as often: once every 61,603 miles.
    Cleanliness: The L was the cleanest line, with only 2% of their cars having moderate or heavy dirt, while 20% of cars on the dirtiest line — the F — had moderate or heavy dirt, a rate ten times higher.
    • Chance of getting a seat:8  We rate a rider’s chance of getting a seat at the most congested point on the line. We found the best chance is on the V line, where riders had a 77% chance of getting a seat during rush hour at the most crowded point. The L ranked worst and was much more overcrowded, with riders having only a 24% chance of getting a seat.
    Amount of scheduled service: The 6 line had the most scheduled service, with two-and-a-half minute intervals between trains during the morning and evening rush hours. The M ranked worst, with ten-minute intervals between trains all through the day.
    Regularity of service: The L line had the greatest regularity of service, arriving within two to four minutes of its scheduled interval 93% of the time. The most irregular line is the 2, which performed with regularity only 81% of the time.
    In-car announcements: The 2, 5, 6 and M lines had a perfect performance for adequate announcements made in its subway cars, missing no announcements, reflecting the automation of announcements. In contrast, the B was the worst, missing announcements

II. Summary of Methodology

The NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign reviewed extensive MTA New York City Transit data on the quality and quantity of service on 22 subway lines. We used the latest comparable data available, largely from the second half of 2008. Several of the data items have not been publicly released before on a line-by-line basis. MTA New York City Transit does not conduct a comparable rider count on the G line, which is the only major line not to go into Manhattan. As a result, we could not give the G line a MetroCard Rating, although we do issue a profile for the line.

We then calculated a MetroCard Rating — intended as a shorthand tool to allow comparisons among lines — for 21 subway lines, as follows:

First, we formulated a scale of the relative importance of measures of subway service. This was based on a survey we conducted of a panel of transit experts and riders, and an official survey of riders by MTA New York City Transit. The six measures were weighted as follows:

Amount of service
   • scheduled amount of service30%
Dependability of service
   • percent of trains arriving at regular intervals   22.5%
   • breakdown rate12.5%
Comfort/usability
   • chance of getting a seat 15%
   • interior cleanliness10%
   • adequacy of in-car announcements10%

Second, for each measure, we compared each line’s performance to the best- and worst-performing lines in this rating period.

A line equaling the system best in 2008 would receive a score of 100 for that indicator, while a line matching the system low in 2008 would receive a score of 0. Under this rating scale, a small difference in performance between two lines translates to a small difference between scores.

These scores were then multiplied by the percentage weight of each indicator, and added up to reach an overall raw score. Below is an illustration of calculations for a line, in this case the 4.


Figure 1

Indicator 4 line value including best and worst in system for 5 indicators

4 line score out of 100

Percentage weight

4 line adjusted raw score

Scheduled service

AM rush—4 min; noon—5 min; PM rush—4 min

81

30%

24

Service regularity

83% (best—93%; worst—81%)

21

22.50%

5

Breakdown rate

191,568 miles (best—327,191 miles; worst—61,603 miles)

49

12.50%

6

Crowding

24% seated (best—77%; worst—24%)

1

15%

0

Cleanliness

90% clean (best—98%; worst—80%)

56

10%

6

Announcements

99% adequate (best—100%; worst—73%)

96

10%

10

Adjusted score total

 

 

 

4 line—50 pts.

 

Third, the summed totals were then placed on a scale that emphasizes the relative differences between scores nearest the top and bottom of the scale. (See Appendix I.)

Finally, we converted each line’s summed raw score to a MetroCard Rating. We created a formula with assistance from independent transit experts. A line scoring, on average, at the 50th percentile of the lines in 2008 for all six performance measures would receive a MetroCard Rating of $1.15. A line that matched the 95th percentile of this range would be rated $2.25.

New York City Transit officials reviewed the profiles and ratings in 1997. They concluded:  "Although it could obviously be debated as to which indicators are most important to the transit customer, we feel that the measures that you selected for the profiles are a good barometer in generally representing a route’s performance characteristics… Further, the format of your
profiles… is clear and should cause no difficulty in the way the public interprets the information." 

Their full comments can be found in Appendix I, which presents a more detailed description of our methodology. Transit officials were also sent an advance summary of the findings for this year's State of the Subways Report Card.

For our first six surveys, we used 1996 — our first year for calculating MetroCard Ratings — as a baseline. As we said in our 1997 report, our ratings “will allow us to use the same formula for ranking service on subway lines in the future. As such, it will be a fair and objective barometer for gauging whether service has improved, stayed the same, or deteriorated over time.”

However, in 2001, 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2008, transit officials made changes in how performance indicators are measured and/or reported. The Straphangers Campaign unsuccessfully urged MTA New York City Transit to re-consider its new methodologies, because of our concerns about the fairness of these measures and the loss of comparability with past indicators. Transit officials also rejected our request to re-calculate measures back to 1996 in line with their adopted changes. As a result, in this report we were forced to redefine our baseline with current data, and considerable historical comparability was lost.

III.  Why A Report Card on the State of the Subways?

Why does the Straphangers Campaign publish a yearly report card on the subways?

First, riders are looking for information on the quality of their trips. The MTA has, unfortunately, resisted putting detailed line-by-line performance measures on their web site. In June 2003, the MTA did begin posting quarterly performance data on its website, www.mta.info. However, none of this information is broken down by line. Our profiles seek to fill this gap.

Second, our report cards provide a picture of where the subways are headed. Overall, we found a mixed picture for subway service on the three measures we can compare over time — car breakdowns, car cleanliness and announcements. We were unable to compare the other three measures due to changes in methodology by transit officials.
• The car fleet breakdown rate worsened from an average mechanical failure every 149,646 miles in 2007 to 134,795 in 2008 a drop of almost 10%. This is a bad trend, raising questions about the condition and maintenance of the aging transit fleet. We found fifteen lines worsened, while seven lines improved.
• Accurate and understandable subway car announcements improved, going from 85% in our last report to 90% in the current report. We found that: sixteen lines improved, two worsened slightly and four remained unchanged.
• Subway cars went from 87% rated clean in our last report to 91% in our current report. We found sixteen lines improved, four worsened and two did not change.

Future performance will be a challenge given the MTA’s tight budget. Hopefully, the extension of line general managers to all subway routes will result in improved service.

Lastly, we aim to give communities the information they need to win better service. We often hear from riders and neighborhood groups. They will say, “Our line has got to be worst.” Or “We must have the most crowded trains.” Or “Our line is much better than others.”

For riders and officials on lines receiving a poor level of service, our report will help them make the case for improvements, ranging from increases in service to major repairs. That’s not just a hope. In past years, we’ve seen riders win improvements, such as on the B, N and 5 lines.

For those on better lines, the report can highlight areas for improvement. For example, riders on the 7 — now the best in the system — have pointed to past declines and won increased service.

This report is part of a series of studies on subway and bus service. For example, we issue annual surveys on payphone service in the subways, subway car cleanliness and subway car announcements, as well as give out the Pokey Awards for the slowest city bus routes.

Our reports can be found at our web site, www.straphangers.org, as can our profiles. We hope that these efforts — combined with the concern and activism of many thousands of city transit riders — will win better subway and bus service for New York City.

 

1 New York City Residents’ Perceptions of New York City Transit Service, 1999 Citywide Survey, prepared for MTA New York City Transit.

2 The measures are: frequency of scheduled service; how regularly trains arrive; delays due to car mechanical problems; chance to get a seat at peak period; car cleanliness; and in-car announcements. Regularity of service is reported in a indicator called wait assessment, a measure of gaps in service or bunching together of trains.

3 We derived the MetroCard Ratings with the help of independent transportation experts. Descriptions of the methodology can be found in Section II and Appendix I. The rating was developed in two steps. First, we decided how much weight to give each of the six measures of transit service. Then we placed each line on a scale that permits fair and consistent comparisons. Under a formula we derived, a line whose performance fell exactly at the 50th percentile in this baseline would receive a MetroCard rating of $1.15 in this report. Any line at the 95th percentile of this range would receive a rating of $2.50, the current base fare.

4 We were unable to give an overall MetroCard Rating to the system’s three permanent shuttle lines—the Franklin Avenue Shuttle, the Rockaway Park Shuttle, and the Times Square Shuttle—because data is not available. The G line does not receive a MetroCard Rating as reliable data on crowding for that line is not available.

5 We did not issue a report in 2002. Because of the severe impact on the subways from the World Trade Center attack, ratings based on service at the end of 2001 would not have been appropriate.

6 The line general managers program was expanded to all the other numbered lines (1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6) in October 2008 and will soon be expanded to all the lettered lines.

7 For some measures, small differences in rounding scores explain the first- and last-place rankings.

8 New York City Transit does not include G line passenger counts in its annual Cordon Count, as the G is the only one of the 22 major lines not to enter Manhattan’s central business district. For this reason, Straphangers Campaign does not give a MetroCard Rating to the G.