If you’re new to New York, you’re probably just getting used to our fancy 24-hour transit system. This modern engineering marvel can get you from point A to point B, all for the low cost of three dollars (for now). Sure, the trains can be confusing, but you’re happy to live in a city that’s so accessible and cares about your commute.
If you’ve lived in New York for over a year, you know the MTA is the mortal enemy of New Yorkers that constantly lights on fire and tries to make us late for work. Where do they get off charging us three dollars for a single ride? In 2017 it was just $2.75, and recent news shared that they may hike the prices by 5.5% in the coming years! Full of delays, overcrowding, and that one guy who thinks it’s okay to smoke a cigarette on the train, New Yorkers of all demographics fight tirelessly to find ways to defeat the public transit system.
But fear not, newbies of the Big Apple. There are ways to topple these underground metal worms. But first, what exactly is the MTA? And where does it come from?
What is the MTA?
The MTA, or Metropolitan Transit Authority for all you fancy folks out there, is the largest transportation network in North America. Yes, it’s even bigger than Amtrak and has the largest bus fleet and the most rail cars in the US. This network services all of New York State and parts of Connecticut and carries over 15 million passengers a day. They are in charge of the NYC subway system, but they are also responsible for the bus system, bridges, and tunnels, as well as the Long Island Railroad and Metro-North Railroad. Basically, if you’re using a train or bus to get around New York, you’re riding with the MTA.
The MTA is a sort of public service that is, sort of, run by the governor’s office of New York. However, the MTA is also sort of a corporation, making its status a bit murky. It calls itself a “public authority” and is technically separate from the government. This means that the MTA is, sort of, run by a 17-member board of trustees who, sort of, have the public’s best interest at heart. It’s an extremely confusing system that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to anyone. However, maybe the history of the MTA can help us to understand what it does and who it does it for.
History of the MTA
The MTA will tell you its history begins in 1965 when the original company was officially formed, albeit under a different name. However, the history goes back a lot longer, as many of the train lines that make up the MTA were built long before its founding. The Long Island Railroad, or LIRR for you acronym freaks out there, was formerly part of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Even the subway system that the MTA is most known for has a long history outside the organization.
The subway, as detailed in the book From a Nickel to a Token by Andrew J. Sparberg, was once three separate companies. Two of those companies were private, while one was owned by the city. All three became city-run in 1940. The city purchased all the bus lines a few years later, making all of these transportation methods a public service. However, this would not remain the case for long.
In 1965, Nelson Rockefeller suggested that state legislators create a corporation to purchase the LIRR. The railroad had been under bankruptcy protection since 1949, and the state wanted to update it while also allowing itself to make more deals with other surrounding railroads. This new state-run company was called the Metropolitan Commuter Transportation Authority, or MCTA, for all you history freaks. The new company quickly went to work updating the LIRR while also eyeing some other transportation options it might want to get its hands on.
Now, generally, monopolies are illegal in the United States. However, New York State decided that rule didn’t apply to them because their corporation bought up a bunch of public services. It started by buying trains to Connecticut, making it possible to board them in Grand Central. In 1966, NYC mayor John Lindsay suggested that the buses and subway system, as well as the bridge and tunnel operations of NYC, be consolidated into the MCTA. Rockefeller loved this idea and merged those operations in 1967. The MCTA now had so much authority that it was able to approve the construction of highways and airport equipment. The corporation was now so big that it was no longer the MCTA. In 1968, it changed its name and became the MTA we all know today.
Issues With the MTA
So while the MTA is still a corporation, it’s still technically a public service that is funded by the state…mostly. The truth is much more complicated than one might expect. Being a corporation, the MTA is generally interested in cutting costs while maximizing profit. A New York Times investigation shows a history of mismanagement from both sides of the political aisle, who repeatedly cut funding from the MTA’s budget while also raising commuter prices. A lot of the budget that stuck around was used on vanity projects rather than the failing infrastructure of subway lines, some of which are over 100 years old. The story even calls the MTA the state’s “piggybank” collecting money while spending very little on the commuters it’s supposed to serve.
Aside from the financial aspect of the MTA, the service itself has been less than adequate recently too. Only 65% of subway trains reached their destinations on time in 2017, and the MTA has the slowest buses in the nation. To be fair, this isn’t entirely the MTA’s fault. Hurricane Sandy devastated the subway system, and repairs from that storm are still being made to this day. As for the buses, NYC has some of the worst traffic in the nation, making it difficult for buses to traverse the streets of the city. That said, the MTA can do more to fix these issues, including regular infrastructure updates.
The biggest issue with the MTA is accessibility. As of last year, only 24% of NYC’s subway stations were accessible according to ADA standards, which is the lowest rate in the country. It isn’t just inaccessible to those with physical disabilities either. Fare increases put a real financial strain on riders with lower incomes, and now the MTA is moving away from physical MetroCards to an online system you use on your phone. The issue is that not every New Yorker has, or can afford, a smartphone, so this will just make commuting harder for those with financial troubles. All of this comes at a point when the city is already pricing a lot of people out of houses and homes.
Essentially, the MTA is a corporation trying to parade around as a public service. Unfortunately, it’s the only option for the vast majority of people living in the city. People rely on the subway and buses to get to work every day, even with their extensive issues. So what can regular New Yorkers do? How can we make this situation work for us rather than against us? It’s a tough question to answer, but there are strategies for how to traverse and defeat the MTA.
Tips and Tricks to Beat the MTA
First, if you’re moving to the city, try to find a place close to the train. This might seem like a tall order since places near trains tend to be more expensive. In fact, rents even increased near major subway stops like Times Square, Harold Square, and Union Square. According to a study done by RentHop, rent increased near 90% of subway stations, but you should still try to find an apartment near one if you can. Being close to a train can be a New York game changer.
A 20-minute walk from the subway to home means you have to leave for work an hour and a half early. However, living a block away from a train is only a 30-minute commute. The Renthop study shows you which locations experienced the largest rent increases and the few that have remained the same near train stations, so be sure to check it out before you sign a lease.
Next and most important, download the MTA app on your phone. A good chunk of this piece was spent being mad at the MTA, but they are also acutely aware of their issues. The app has a bunch of features that show you train and bus maps, tell you if trains are down or delayed, and will even let you access a ride for persons with disabilities or injuries. Additionally, if you are a person with a disability, it will also tell you which stations have ramps and accessible elevators. This tool will make navigating the subway way easier and even get you used to marking your go-to train routes like a pro.
The next step is to become a pro at Google Maps. Google maps will be your best friend, especially with their new feature that tells you how crowded the subways are. Everyone knows the subway will be crowded during rush hour, but the MTA can and will surprise you. Overcrowded subways will have you packed like sardines if you time it wrong, so this feature will be extremely helpful. The feature is called “what it’s like,” and it does more than tell you what capacity the train is at. It also tells you how safe the train is at the moment, as well as the temperature inside. This last feature is very important for those of us on the 1 train looking to avoid the hot car. If you know, you know.
If you feel like being a good neighbor, then one of the nicest things you can do for someone is to pay for their fare. Sometimes people will be waiting at the turnstiles to ask people for a free swipe. If you can afford them, help them out. If they jump the turnstile, they could incur a fine of more than $100. That’s not cool.
Sadly cops are stepping up their game to prevent fare evasion, but you’re 100% allowed to swipe someone in for you. Additionally, you might have seen someone opening the emergency door for someone pushing a stroller or carrying something heavy. CitySignal is not saying you should do that. It’s just a thing we’ve seen people do every now and then. But we are DEFINITELY NOT advocating for it. So stop asking.
One of the best things you can do is get the timing of trains down. This can be difficult, considering the train schedules change a lot, but you’ll get the hang of it eventually. The biggest decision you’ll have to make is choosing between express and local trains. Express trains like to pretend they’re always faster, but if you’re going short distances, that’s not always the case. Check the arrival times for trains if you’re going a short distance. If an express train is more than five minutes away, then just stick to the local train. You’ll usually make it there in the same amount of time. For longer rides, stick to the express.
Now that you have a fancy apartment, have downloaded all the apps, and have helped your neighbor get through the turnstile, it’s time to learn about train etiquette. First and foremost, most of the COVID restrictions have been lifted. Currently, you don’t have to wear a mask on the train, but it’s still a good idea nonetheless, especially during flu season. Most people are pretty good about this, so you should be too. You can also do several things to make trips easier for everyone, like offering your seat to pregnant people or the elderly. And, if they refuse your offer, don’t be weird about it. Don’t smoke on the train, either. Yes, people do it, and yes, it’s gross. Recently people have been vaping on the train, largely because they’re under the impression vapes don’t smell. These people are wrong. Vapes do smell, and it is still annoying when people do it on the train, so don’t be one of them.
If your train stops underground and you have to evacuate, don’t panic. That just happens sometimes. It’s part of the ritual of becoming a New Yorker, like having a rat run across your feet or getting splashed by a puddle on the street that burns your skin. Listen to the train dispatcher and follow the lead of the New Yorker who looks the most annoyed that they’ll be late for work. It won’t be their first rodeo. In this same vein, you might see an emergency break in your train car. This emergency brake will, in fact, stop the train, but it will also get everyone mad at you if you use it for a bad reason. There’s virtually no reason you’ll need to pull the break, so it’s best just to leave it alone.
Lastly, DO NOT hold the train doors. Ever. Even if you see someone sprinting for the train doors. If the universe wanted them to make that train, it would’ve let them on. Holding the train doors delays the train and, sometimes, even breaks the door resulting in that train shutting down. Sometimes items get stuck in train doors, which can lead to injuries, so be sure you and your stuff are fully inside the train car.
There are other etiquette things that will pop up, but you’ll just have to trust your instincts over time. That said, the last piece of advice about how to beat the MTA is learning how to fight some of the not-great decisions they make. Remember the fare hikes mentioned earlier? Those come very frequently, with over six hikes happening in the last twenty years and another one ready to happen anytime now. Additionally, while the MTA is slowly getting better at accessibility, it’s still sorely lacking. Disability-accessible stations are still few and far between, mostly placed at express stops. The MTA’s decisions on these matters are rarely ever popular, but you can make your voice heard by contacting local government leaders and the MTA itself. Tweeting at them is also a fun way to blow off steam.
With all this in mind, you should be ready to take on anything the subway throws at you. Surprises will happen. Some you might enjoy, like a fun dance routine or a marriage proposal from a man who doesn’t know what romance is. Some will be less fun, like a teenager pulling the emergency brake as a prank. Whatever the situation is, just know that you can handle it.
You now have the location, the apps, and the know-how to help you through even the most dire MTA situation. And with that, we hope your next train pulls into the station the moment you walk through the turnstile.
Russell is a writer and comic based in New York City. His plays have been featured at Penn State’s Cultural Conversation’s Festival, The NYC Thespis Festival, and Imaginarium’s Inaugural Theater Festival. Follow him on TikTok and Instagram @pooleparty528