Statement of the New York City Transit Riders Council to the
Committee on Transportation of the New York City Council
on New York City Transit’s Performance
during the December 26, 2010 Blizzard
January 14, 2011
My name is William Henderson and I serve as Executive Director of the New York City Transit Riders Council (NYCTRC). The NYCTRC, which was established in 1981, is the legislatively mandated representative of New York City Transit riders, created by the State Legislature in 1981 to represent the users of the New York City Transit system. The Council consists of fifteen volunteer members appointed by the Governor upon the recommendation of the Mayor, the Public Advocate and the five Borough Presidents.
The Council thanks this Committee for holding these hearings on the MTA’s performance during the recent blizzard. We believe that it is imperative that we examine this storm, the steps that the MTA and NYC Transit took in response to it, and the outcomes that followed from their actions. It is not our intent to identify a scapegoat or to assign blame, but we believe that lessons can be learned and the response to similar storms in the future can be improved.
Clearly, some of the things that happened to riders in the blizzard of December 26 were unacceptable. Too many of the MTA’s customers were left without transportation and learned of suspensions of service only when left in the cold after their bus or train did not arrive. Worse yet were the situations of riders who became stranded on buses or trains unable to proceed in the storm, including the unfathomable case of the A train riders who were left in place for almost eight hours. Incidents such as this cannot be allowed to occur, regardless of the severity of the storm.
The NYCTRC is adamant in our demand that the paramount consideration of our transit system in times of weather emergencies must be the safety and welfare of its riders. We are very concerned about the decisions that were made that led to the stranding of some riders on subways and buses that became stuck in the midst of their runs and insist that corrective action be taken to prevent similar decisions from being made in the future. Simply stated, riders should never have been stranded for extended periods of time by a severe storm that we knew for some time was on its way. Transit service must be safe and reliable, and, while weather may affect service, adequate provisions for situations where riders have become stranded en route must be in place. Consequently, we are particularly concerned about news accounts that suggest that diesel locomotives that would have been useful in rescuing stalled equipment were not deployed during last month’s storm.
We have always been advocates for service that meets the travel needs of bus and subway users, as New York City residents rely more greatly on their transit system than do people anywhere in the nation. Where travel is necessary during a winter storm, transit is certainly the best way to go, but we also recognize that there may be a point where some service may need to be suspended. Such a decision must be made in an atmosphere of open communication and coordination with public safety and other appropriate City agencies and must weigh the needs of those who rely on the system against the possibility of harm to riders if service is maintained, but in severe weather it may ultimately be necessary to take this action. We are encouraged by recent statements that MTA and NYC Transit officials have made on this issue, including those statements that were made leading up to this week’s storm.
Beyond making the right decisions, however, transit officials must communicate effectively with riders about any impacts that weather will have on service. Most riders are resilient and if necessary can adapt to weather related changes in service, but they must know what service will be provided and what service may be suspended. This means letting riders know in advance that there may be service impacts or suspensions as forecasts indicate that there will be severe weather, providing information as storm conditions build, and broadly communicating any service changes as soon as decisions on them are made.
This communication must use a number of channels, as not all riders receive information in the same way. The MTA’s web based alert systems and social media initiatives are a valuable way of reaching riders, but not all riders get information through these systems. Riders must also be reached through broadcast media and through announcements within the system itself. In a city as diverse as ours, these efforts should include media broadcasting in languages other than English. We would like to see the countdown clock displays be capable of providing these messages and the advertising displays at subway station entrances used as well, as was discussed when this system was approved. I would rather hear some of our riders complain about receiving too many announcements than have riders put in harm’s way because they have not received vital information.
The NYCTRC believes that the December 26 storm provides a valuable opportunity to reexamine rules, practices, and procedures governing the MTA’s response to severe weather and to make improvements where necessary. While this week’s storm was much less severe than the December 26 event, it is our hope that the MTA is moving toward a more reasoned and coordinated system for responding to severe weather conditions. We are encouraged by President Prendergast’s showing a candor and willingness to critically examine his agency’s performance and believe that this attitude will facilitate learning from past problems and moving forward with an improved process.