Thursday, June 26, 2008

Mind the crap

If you're ever a visitor to our fine city and you're looking for a truly miserable place to spend some time, may I suggest the uptown 1 train platform at the Columbus Circle subway station? If it's a purgatorial experience you're after, this spot is tough to beat, especially in hot weather. It's curved, so the trains pulling in, or passing by on the express track, squeal horribly. And the entrance on the southeast corner of 59th Street and 7th Avenue is a literal tourist trap: no transit worker in the booth, ever, means there are always looooong lines of people trying to figure out how to work the Metrocard vending machines, and once they manage to purchase their fares, they have to figure out how to operate the confounding floor-to-ceiling grates that are the only entrance options available. Even if they get past both of those obstacles, they enter a tiny space with little signage -- you will always find a cluster of tourists standing just inside the turnstiles, staring at a subway map, squinting down the narrow platform, and ultimately trying to decide which of the non-tourists standing nearby looks harmless enough to approach for help.

So this platform is one of the system's least pleasant for a number of reasons. (And did I mention it's a high-traffic spot?) But there's one factor I'd like to focus on right now, the thing that really puts it over the top. And that's the never-ending, glacially paced, and seldom actually in progress construction that has turned the entire 59th Street station into a disaster area, and has made this particular platform a daily exercise in frustration for me for more than two years now.

A little background, courtesy of some people who went beyond just wondering what the hell they're doing at Columbus Circle and actually did some research. 2nd Avenue Sagas wrote a little piece on the reconstruction project here, in April 2007. (The link to the project site is broken, but you can find it at the Dattner Architects website, under "Infrastructure.") And last August they checked back in, noting that the station was "a huge disaster." The situation has been a topic of complaint for some time for The Subway Blogger: here in October (man, every word of that is true), and here earlier this week. The links above say this whole project is not due to be complete till 2009 (although what I found on the Dattner site says 2008) -- a reasonable deadline, given their round-the-clock schedule of not working on it. I don't know when it all started, but I do know I've been getting on and off the 1 train at Columbus Circle on an almost daily basis (and very often multiple times per day) since I started dating the husband -- so let's say since the beginning of 2006 -- and I can't remember a time when it wasn't a major hassle and a considerable safety hazard. Here's a great shot of what the station looked like from the outside in September 2006. And I can tell you for certain that the 1 train platform has been reduced to a narrow strip since at least last fall, because when this article by David W. Dunlap was published in the NYT on November 2, 2007, I remember thinking, That's interesting, but you probably should have pulled it off your "human interest stories to put on the front page when we don't have any real news" pile a little sooner, because those tiles you're telling people to check out have been hidden behind a blue construction wall for weeks now. (Bonus sloppy journalism expose!)

Which brings me to my latest tale of woe. Last night, after work, I wanted to see my sister and her family, just back from Europe. The kids are still fighting jet lag, so I knew I had to rush to get there before their 7:00 bedtime. I hurried to Columbus Circle to take the 1 train uptown. When I got there, I could tell by the number of people pouring out of the (narrowed-by-construction) exit that the train now in the station must have been packed to its gills, and sure enough, when it pulled out there were still people standing on the platform who hadn't been able to squeeze themselves on. This was rush hour, and the 1 train is a popular one, and 59th Street is a major hub. So no big surprise there. But if you want to have any hope of getting onto a train under those conditions, you have to make your way along the platform to a not-too-crowded spot, away from the entrances where most people clump. I'm not telling you anything radical here; it's standard operating procedure for any intelligent, fairly nimble commuter. You walk down the platform. But that's a challenge on the uptown 1 train platform at 59th Street, because ongoing construction has narrowed all but about a quarter of said platform to a small strip of pavement, not quite wide enough for two-way traffic, especially when people are already lined up for the next train. The only areas that are adequately wide are right in front of the two entrances at either end of the platform, which bottleneck under the best of circumstances. So you have to be careful, and sure-footed, and much more considerate than subway-riders are as a rule, and even so you have to walk outside the yellow line you're supposed to "stand behind" just to get where you need to go.

As I said, this has been the situation on this platform since last fall at the latest, and I think, in some form, for a lot longer than that. I used to see or hear some work going on behind the big blue walls occasionally, but I never do now. Not in the morning, not in the afternoon, not in the evening or at night. The only indication I've seen that any MTA employees have been there at all was the sudden appearance of signs a while back -- not just the standard, ridiculous "RESTRICTED CLEARANCE AREA" signs (I love those; it's like they're hoping the lingo will catch on and we'll all start talking about the "RCAs"), but more direct variations that say, "NO STANDING." I remember the first time I saw those signs. I laughed ruefully and thought, Oh, really? You mean this is not safe place to stand? Well, gee, thank you for making me aware of that fact. How helpful. I guess I'll just not take a train, then, since that applies to three quarters of this platform.

Back to last night. Usually a really, really crowded (and therefore most likely delayed) train is followed immediately by a not-so-crowded train, so I figured I wouldn't be waiting long, and made myself as comfortable and not-in-the-way as I could on the narrow part of the platform, standing near a column for security. And then I heard a voice bark, "Don't stand there!" I looked up to see a man in an orange vest -- an MTA employee -- addressing the woman standing against the next pillar down, moving her along with a shooing motion like she was a bum squatting in a hotel lobby, although she was in fact wearing a graduation gown. Then he turned to me and snapped, "Miss, you can't stand there!"

My reaction, naturally: astonishment, annoyance, disgust, more or less in that order. Some of that must have flashed across my face, because as I walked away, he said, "I guarantee you, when you fall on the tracks you won't give me that look!"

You might not know it from all the journalist-baiting and presumptuous opinion-giving and irate ranting about the subway and Postal Service I do here, but in real life I'm a very nonconfrontational person. Not a trouble-starter. Not a giver of hard times. And so I resisted the urge to wheel around and give this guy a piece of my mind. But I regretted that decision immediately, and my regret grew as I stood there on the platform, fuming, sweating, jockeying for a place to stand in the supposedly "safe" area near the tourist-trap entrance, which was getting more crowded by the second, and watching as not one but two trains came and went, with no room for me, or for any but the pushiest of the people waiting with me. (I was wrong, by the way, that another train would come along any minute; in fact, it took at least 10 minutes for the next one to show up.) I had lots of time to think about what I should have said to that guy in the orange vest, Johnny Public Servant with his helpful suggestions. And if I could go back to that moment and hear him sneer, "I guarantee you, when you fall on the tracks you won't give me that look!" I know just what I would answer:

"I guarantee you, if I fall on the tracks, the MTA can expect a lawsuit, because the state of this platform is inexcusable. You think I don't know it's not safe to stand here? It's incredibly unsafe, and it's been this way for at least a year! I'm not waiting here because I think it's fun to get dangerously close to the tracks. I'm here because it's rush hour, and the trains are held up as usual, and I'd like to get where I'm going sometime tonight, and if I stand in the very small portion of this platform that is still considered 'safe,' I will end up in a large crowd of people who will push to get on the train, and the only ones who will actually make it are the ones standing dangerously close to the tracks. And I won't be any safer there than I am here, but at least here I have a shot at getting on the train when it comes. So spare me your attitude, because scofflaw commuters are not the MTA's biggest problem right now. And if you, or the MTA, gave two shits about my safety or the safety of any other person on this platform, you would fix the problem instead of hassling commuters like me who are making the best of a bad situation. Dealing with this bullshit every single day is bad enough; don't insult my intelligence with a condescending lecture and a sign that says 'NO STANDING.' That's not customer service, it's a disgrace."

Yeah, it probably wouldn't have helped any. And it wouldn't have given me any more time to spend with my nephews and niece. But man, it would have made me feel better.


Marla said...

Best post title ever.


Anonymous said...

apparently, someone WAS killed last night at columbus circle after falling onto the tracks. all of the uptown 1,2,3 trains were out of service from 9 o clock on. at Penn Station, riders were given free transfers to the ACE.

sounds like your MTA friend knew what he was talking about...

Mollie said...

Wow, really? As it happens, I was stuck on an uptown 1 train at that time -- but all they told us was that the delay was "due to a police investigation at 59th Street." ("Of course it's 59th Street," I said to my friend.) And "police investigation" can mean pretty much anything.

I can't find any other information today (did your search turn up anything, other than my blog?). But if it's true, it's terrible, obviously -- and not at all surprising. I never said the guy was wrong; I agree wholeheartedly, in fact. Falling onto the subway tracks is one of my biggest urban fears, and standing on that platform -- anywhere on that platform -- is very obviously unsafe. But the MTA has made no changes to compensate for that, aside from hanging some signs -- the trains don't come more frequently to prevent overcrowding, and all the doors still open, regardless of how safe it might be to step on or off a given car. So, short of not taking the train at all, commuters don't have much choice but to take the risk. And sending out employees to hassle riders during rush hour is not the most responsible or effective way for the MTA to deal with the blatantly dangerous situation they've set up. Not by a long shot.