Next week, Andy Byford begins what is today one of the most difficult jobs in the world – turning around New York City’s faltering transit system. Can he rebuild and restore faith in a transit agency plagued by declining performance, chronic mismanagement and terrible communication?
To welcome Mr. Byford, we’ve compiled a list of five things he should immediately address that could make a sizable impact within a year’s time, providing much-needed hope that NYC Transit is capable of progress. Making headway in these areas would go a long way to stabilizing public confidence in the agency, and allow it to take on even tougher jobs such as closing down entire subway lines to modernize subway signals. We think NYC Transit has the skill to pull off all of these, and hope that he is the leader who will finally unleash its potential.
We’re rooting for you, Andy!
Demonstrate cost-control and procurement discipline. The recent New York Times expose documenting the official consensus tolerating rampant featherbedding and massive consultant mark-ups at the MTA will only make it harder for Transit to make the case for additional resources — unless you can show that the situation is changing. Pick a pending 2018 contract for NYC Transit’s capital program and show the public that bidding was competitive and that NYC Transit made an effort to arrive at realistic costs. Develop the contract with real transit intelligence so that the MTA Board does not end up repeatedly amending it. Fire or demote contract officials who are not capable of protecting the public interest. Make your procurement officials help project managers get things done, rather than acting as a fiefdom that adds years to needed work.
Make progress on buses. NYC Transit has quietly developed an ambitious and effective overhaul of routes that would allow the Staten Island express bus system to offer faster and more efficient service. Its success could be a great jumping-off point for updating and improving bus routes across the city. Transit’s public message about the plan runs from sporadic to non-existent, which is no way to prepare the public or local officials for impending change. It’s unclear today whether the effort will even go forward. Bad strategy, communications and messaging are endemic across the MTA (more below). But if you grab the reins of this project promptly, you have a chance to create a new, integrated approach to project execution and public communication that could be broadened to the rest of your agency.
Overhaul Transit’s Dysfunctional Elevator & Escalators Unit. New York is a city full of high-rise buildings with elevators that work every day. Transit’s elevators don’t, and your agency has a well-deserved reputation for regarding accessibility as a nuisance rather than an essential mission. A 2017 audit by the City Comptroller found that the unit doesn’t perform preventative maintenance 80% of the time, and fails to reach its elevator up-time goal of 96.5% reliability — an anemic target when compared to that of comparable systems like Chicago and Boston. Whether the solution is internal or should be an experiment in contracting for service, the result needs to be reliable subway elevators.
Give riders countdown clocks we can believe in. New Yorkers were overjoyed about the recent arrival of years-in-the-making countdown clocks at stations on lettered subway lines. Until they saw where they had been placed, and the fact that they don’t work much of the time. Placing clocks behind, directly in front of or otherwise clashing with other essential station signage only sent a message that NYC Transit is incapable of doing anything right. Fixing these flubs would directly demonstrate a new day to hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers.
Let us know what you’re doing. Transit communications are seldom, inconsistent and mostly defensive. The agency telegraphs a sense that the public and other governmental actors are enemies, and safeguards information. The public really just wants to know what’s going on.
Whether it’s on the topic of bad elevators, sky-high construction costs or endless timelines, external criticism and input about subways and buses is typically rejected. This is not a way to run a public agency that exhibits big problems on a daily basis. Ditch the defensive posturing, and acknowledge the causes of the current crisis. As BART in San Francisco and the Toronto Transit Commission under your leadership found, frank communications and open data can go a long way towards building trust with riders, and amassing the political capital that will ultimately allow the agency to get more done.
There are myriad ways to remedy this. They all begin with making communication a priority. The subway performance dashboard – the release of which was widely celebrated – hasn’t been updated since October. Keeping it up to date would go a long way towards letting riders know if the MTA is actually making progress on its stated goals of improved service.
Much like you did in Toronto, we also encourage you to get out of the office often and spend time listening to riders’ concerns. Some of this dialogue could be accomplished virtually, by creating an agency blog – in an honest, authentic voice – that explains the challenges the agency faces, the ways you are addressing them, the rationale behind decision making, and the need for shared sacrifice.