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The Sorry State Of The Country's Subway Systems


It's been a tough summer for subway riders. Summer Of Hell some headlines have called it. The 112-year-old system in New York has been plagued by increasing delays, frustration and political finger pointing, which in New York, of course, is often the middle finger. Washington, D.C.'s metro system just completed a year-long series of maintenance surges to improve safety, but delays continue. Subway and rail transit in Boston, Chicago and San Francisco have also been plagued by service outages, delays, breakdowns and grousing from passengers. Mike Manville is a professor of planning at UCLA. Professor, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: Is something going on? Why are all these subway systems seeming to come apart at the same time?

MANVILLE: Well, there's no nationwide single cause. You know, these are all separate systems of course. I think that there's probably two things going on. In some of these systems, part of the delay is not a result of maintenance problems, but sort of the services being victims of their own success.

You know, a big problem that's happening in New York is simply that ridership is at something close to an all-time high. And the more people who a ride a subway, the more time it takes for people to get on and off. And so delays start to add up. That's not the case in some of these other cities where ridership is maybe growing but not growing as fast.

But I think that the common thread in a lot of these cities is just that these systems are old. The systems are old and maintenance has been deferred on them. And, you know, in different ways and at different times, that's starting to catch up.

SIMON: So it's part of the crumbling infrastructure problem in America?

MANVILLE: (Laughter) Yeah, you could say that. I mean, I think that, you know - and certainly, when you think about it, these are some of the oldest pieces of infrastructure we have. Often when we talk about the crumbling infrastructure, folks are worried about our highway system or our bridges and so forth. But as you said, New York subway system is 112 years old. Boston's is even older. The rail system in San Francisco is also quite old. So this is some of the oldest infrastructure we have. And so it's not that surprising that it's starting to give out.

SIMON: It's a special kind of horror to be delayed for, let's say, even half an hour or even five minutes, for that matter, in a subway car that's stalled that has no electricity that's well underneath the ground and the air is stifling. And that - just the fear of that happening is enough to drive people away, isn't it?

MANVILLE: Absolutely. And I think, honestly, it would drive more people away from some of these systems except that, in a couple of these cities, a lot of the folks who ride the subway - that really is the only option. If you're in New York or even in parts of downtown Boston or parts of downtown Chicago, switching over to driving is extremely expensive.

And it also gets in the way of what's an important but also largely overlooked role of public transit in the United States, which is that it's an important social service. Particularly once you get outside of the New York cities and Bostons of the world, transit riders are disproportionately low-income. And this is a way that we move around people who can't afford the typical way of moving around for an American, which is owning a private automobile.

SIMON: Yeah. Any one or two things you'd like to recommend, professor?

MANVILLE: If we look to some other countries, you know - and London is a good example. London has been - has really been dramatically working to upgrade its own system, which is as old - actually, older than New York's. One thing London did that I think, ultimately, a lot of American cities are going to have to at least wrestle with is that they started charging drivers for the congestion they cause.

And that those two things. One is that simply charging people to drive at busy times and in busy places accomplishes a goal that a lot of people want transit to accomplish but that transit can't accomplish, which is reduce traffic congestion. But it also generates a lot of money from a broad base. And some of that, not even all of it, some of that can go into upgrading the transportation system.

SIMON: Mike Manville, who's a professor of urban planning at UCLA, thanks so much for being with us today.

MANVILLE: Yeah, my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.