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American Studies Resources Centre at LJMU

Liverpool John Moores University

Letters from
New York
By Lenny Quart

Lenny has lived in New York for most of
his life, and here he presents a varied selection
of letters expressing his own
unique take on city life.
Lenny QuartAmerican Studies Today Online

Front Page

New for 2014

An Elite Liberal University
Going to an Elite School


A Victory in the Culture Wars?
An East River Island
A Plethora of Police Scandals
Facts and Intuitions
Exploring a Queens Neighborhood
The Bronx: For Better or Worse
The City in Flux


Brooklyn Writers
Whatever Happened to America's White Working Class?
Once More about Obama
Political takes
An ennui-free city
Comfort Food for the Literate
A Unique Street
Election aftermath
Back to Obama
Transit Follies
An Economically Beleaguered City
Oscar Tedium
Prose and poetry
A Painful Conclusion to 2008
A Celebration of Two Writers
The Political Process
Growing Up in New York
Oscars 2008
Celebrating the Forward
A Bohemian Oasis
A Word from a Convention Demonstrator
Election Post Mortem
Sidney Lumet: New York Director
The New York Subway
Times Square: Past and Present
New York on the eve of 2005
A Cheer for Self-Doubt
The Working Poor
A Vale of Tears
Spike Lee's New Orleans
Hasidim in Brooklyn
Slavery in NYC
A Cornucopia of Stories
A Painter in the City
Altman's Oscar Night
Bob Dylan: American Icon
Brooklyn Changing
Diane Arbus
Political Theatre
The New York Post
Public Life
Surviving the Inner-City
Transit Strike
Three Political Takes
The Sixties Redux
Memorials and Oscars

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Transit Follies

posted 24th March 2010

If you live in New York City, you are likely to be, like myself-- utterly dependent on mass transit. I walk a great deal, but I still need to take a bus or subway at least five days a week to visit friends and attend cultural events. Riding the subway today is vastly different from traveling on the refuse-laden nightmare subway cars of the city's financial crisis years of the 70s and 80s. The subway then felt dominated by roving feral teenagers, menacing panhandlers, and scrofulous homeless people who settled with their tattered overflowing bags and rusty supermarket carts of possessions in stations, tunnels, and sometimes in the cars themselves.

When a large sum of money was committed to capital improvements in the 80s, the subway began to turn around.  And after mass transit crime rate declined in the nineties, and the ubiquitous visually aggressive graffiti was removed, with only a less visible, scratched glass graffiti replacing it, traveling by subway became a more secure experience. (The subway is not only the quickest way to get anywhere in Manhattan, but one can now also usually sit in peace, thinking one's own thoughts, without being wary that something untoward will occur.)  And though the city's buses still may make us wait for unconscionable lengths of time, and then exasperate us by seemingly maliciously arriving in bunches, the service they provide has generally become faster, cleaner, and safer, and the drivers more sensitive to the needs of riders. 

However, the city's mass transit always remains in danger of breaking down. The number of riders on New York City's buses and subways declined last year for the first time in six years, apparently a victim of the economic recession. But the real danger to the transit system is the service cuts that the MTA is weighing, as it struggles with a budget shortfall of about $400 million. The MTA is planning to cut a number of workers, including 600 change clerks (whose presence lessens the threat of crime, a peril augmented by the fact that nearly half the subway's security cameras don't work). It is also eliminating bus routes, reducing train runs, and, of course, raising fares. One proposed cut by the state's legislature was to ax funds for free student Metro Cards. That politically tone-deaf plan aroused protests and rallies from affected students and their parents, and is now off the table.

The MTA has its own failings, but the city's transit troubles have been considerably heightened by the state and city's failure to provide sufficient money to maintain operations. That failure forced the MTA to shift to costly borrowing to fund the replacement and repair of the tracks, trains and buses that keep the system running. Given that Albany is the home of the venal, the feckless, and the indifferent - a veritable temple of dysfunction - it's difficult to imagine, given their record, that it has the capacity to do anything right. There has been little sign that they are able to come up with a coherent plan that will save the transit system from severe service cuts. Such reductions will inevitably harm the city and region's ability to rebound from the economic recession.

Public transportation is not only the lifeblood of New York, but also a vital part of national life. However, we are an auto and highway-loving country (Washington spends 80 percent of transportation dollars building roads) lacking the political will to develop the kind of effective transportation policies that are in operation in most Western European countries. A new documentary on PBS's Blueprint America series, Aaron Woolf' s Beyond the Motor City, deals with plans to begin the revitalization of the desolate (40% of Detroit has turned into abandoned lots of weeds, and even small forests), economically derelict Detroit by reconstructing its bare bones public transportation system. Detroit was once America's booming auto capital, but few of the city's auto factories are functioning today. It's now so crime-ridden, impoverished, and its population so dispersed, that it's doubtful a renewal of mass transit (through a light rail system) would do anything more than make the downtown a bit more workable. Still, it's heartening to see in the film that there are people like the Motor City Blight Busters - volunteers who remove and repair blighted buildings and help install gardens and art in their place - who have not given up all hope of saving Detroit.  

What's most interesting about the film is its look at Spain's high-speed (150-185 miles per hour) national rail AVE system, which in less than 20 years has linked the country from north to south and advanced economic development in the cities it serves. The system is green and so efficient one can live without a car, and Spain has been willing to increase taxes and its national debt to pay for it.
Our federal government, on the other hand, has lacked a national transportation policy, since the Republican Party and a good percentage of the American public hold sacred Ronald Reagan's dictum that “the national government should be concerned with arms control, not potholes.” Of course, that's not true when it serves the public's own self-interest (e.g., Medicare, Veteran's benefits, and farm and corporate subsidies). So subsidizing urban mass transit was largely eschewed in favor of road expansion. And as the film suggests, by the 1980s the US's transportation network had failed to keep pace with the country's development.

The Obama's administration's Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has proposed a policy shift, with major transit projects to be based on livability issues such as economic development opportunities and environmental benefit. But given the Republican opposition to every other Obama government initiative, it's hard to be optimistic about our transit future.