When Cuomo Talks About Transit, He Doesn’t Talk About What Riders Want

In four MTA-related speeches this year, Governor Andrew Cuomo said much more about Wi-Fi and cell phones than fast, reliable transit.
In four MTA-related speeches this year, Governor Andrew Cuomo said much more about Wi-Fi and cell phones than fast, reliable transit.

There’s a huge disconnect between the way Governor Andrew Cuomo talks about transit improvements and the service upgrades that transit riders actually want to see.

You're phone will have plenty of time to get to full battery on NYC's slowest buses in the nation. Photo: YouTube/NY Governor's Office
Your phone will have plenty of time to charge on NYC’s slower-than-walking buses. Photo: YouTube/NY Governor’s Office

Cuomo began the year hyping his “transformative” agenda for the MTA. But to hear the governor tell it, the future of transit in New York City is all about bells and whistles like USB charging stations and underground Wi-Fi. In four major MTA-related speeches or announcements so far this year, Cuomo mentioned “technology,” Wi-Fi, and mobile devices more than twice as much as basics like reliability, speed, and frequent service.

But it’s the basics that matter most to transit riders, according to a major report released by TransitCenter earlier this week [PDF]. In a survey of 3,000 transit riders across the nation, charging outlets and Wi-Fi ranked dead last on their priorities for service improvements.

What improvements do transit riders want? Shorter trip times, more frequent service, and affordable fares ranked at the top:

Wi-Fi and outlets -- the focal point of Governor Cuomo's 2016 transit agenda -- are at the bottom of the list of transit riders' desired service improvements. Image: TransitCenter
Wi-Fi and power outlets — the focal point of Governor Cuomo’s 2016 transit speeches — are at the bottom of the list of transit riders’ priorities. Chart: TransitCenter

In his marquee transit policy speech in January, Cuomo did list “reliability” and “accessibility” as the top factors that make a strong transit system. But soon he was talking about mobile connectivity as the key to a good transit experience.

“I don’t want to get on a train and feel like a sardine for an hour and half on the way to work,” Cuomo said at the time — so far so good. Then he seemed to inhabit the mind of a Millennial caricature, always needing to be plugged in: “I want to be able to sit in a seat, I want to be able to listen to my music, I want to be able to make a telephone call, be connected to Wi-Fi. I’ve come to expect that. That’s my world.”

Cuomo elaborated when he announced that new MTA buses will be equipped with USB outlets and on-board Wi-Fi:

The days where you get on a bus and you read the newspaper are over, right? And people spend time on a bus, you spend time on a subway car, you spend time in a subway station, you want that time to be productive. If your electronic device is not working, you’re out of commission in so many ways.

In May, at the official unveiling of the first 75 new buses, Cuomo remarked on their aesthetics, noting that he had a Ferrari in the same color and that the new bus design “looks fast.” Looking fast isn’t good for much when you’re poking along in a crowded bus on congested streets, though.

Instead of Wi-Fi and charging outlets, Cuomo should be focused on delivering faster, more reliable service.

Electronic proof-of-payment can speed up buses and improve reliability. Modern subway signals can space trains closer together, relieving crowding and improving reliability. Open gangway cars can carry more people, also reducing crowding and related delays. The Move NY plan would let buses move faster by relieving congestion and help keep fares affordable by raising revenue.

These improvements may not be as easy to implement as ordering buses with USB ports, but neither is overhauling Penn Station or replacing LaGuardia Airport — the two pillars of Cuomo’s infrastructure agenda.

Transit riders will finally have something to thank the governor for if he stops bragging about bells and whistles, and starts throwing his weight behind expediting and implementing real service improvements.