Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Reconsidering the varying faces of infrastructure and their sometimes competing imperatives 3: continuing my second case study example

Posted in business and convergent technologies, strategy and planning, UN-GAID by Timothy Platt on August 21, 2018

This is my third installment to a series on infrastructure as work on it, and as possible work on it are variously prioritized and carried through upon, or set aside for future consideration (see Part 1 and Part 2.)

I began my discussion of infrastructure development and maintenance here, as both are shaped and prioritized by political and ideological forces in Part 1, with a briefly and admittedly selective discussion of what has and has not been done to help in the recovery of Puerto Rico after it was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017. And I continued that narrative in Part 2, concluding it at least for now and for purposes of this series as a whole. I then turned in that posting to similarly consider a second such case study example, as provided by the way that New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is jointly managed at a city level and a state level. And I stated at the end of Part 2 that I would conclude that case study here in this posting.

I begin doing so here by picking up on a case in point detail of how need can fall by the wayside, when an infrastructure system becomes a political football that is fought over by competing forces and the power brokers who effectively own them.

I wrote in Part 2 that “even when a subway station is being rebuilt as a major redevelopment initiative that is approved by Albany, it is rare that any effort be made to comply with the US Federal government’s Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in that. As a result, most of the subway stations in this system are still not handicapped accessible. And that federal law was passed in 1990, fast approaching 30 years ago too!” As it turns out, others have also been thinking and writing about this, and the following news piece came out in the New York Times between the time that I write Part 2 of this series and when it first went live, and now as I write this Part 3 next installment:

For Disabled Subway Riders, the Biggest Challenge Can Be Getting to the Train.

As noted in Part 2, the New York City subway system includes in it 472 subway stations, making it the largest such system in the world by that metric. But of that number, 354 are not handicap accessible, lacking elevators that people in wheelchairs would need if they are to make use of this transportation resource. That means only 25% of the stations in this system comply and even just by that measure with the US Federal government’s Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which as just noted above was passed into law almost 30 years ago now, in 1990. That failure to meet genuine public need, among things puts the New York City MTA in what is essentially last place for handicap accessibility among larger mass transit systems as found in the United States. And it leads to the New York City system ranking similarly badly when compared to large-scale mass transit systems globally too.

The MTA has a goal of someday developing enough of their subway stations for handicap accessibility so there is at most just one non-compliant station positioned between any two that are complaint for this. But as of now, and as the above news piece cites in detail, there are numerous stretches in this system where there can be as many as 10 or more non-compliant stations positioned between handicap accessible compliant ones: as many as 10 or more stations that anyone with a wheelchair or a walker who cannot safely use stairs or an escalator, cannot make use of before they reach a station that can accessibly meet their needs.

• The MTA’s current goal is to add elevators to 50 more stations over the coming years, and in principle by the end of 2025, but that could only happen if the gridlock and conflict that has been ongoing between New York City’s city hall, and the governor and legislature in Albany were to become resolved – sort of like a modern repeat of the parting of the Red Sea for the significance and for the likelihood of that happening.
• And even successfully accomplishing that would still leave 304 of those stations effectively unavailable to anyone who needs to use a wheelchair. That would only raise the ADA compliance percentage from 25% to just over 35%, still leaving it one of the least accessible mass transit subway systems of any significant size and scale and both in the United States and when compared to what is available in London, Beijing or essentially any other major city worldwide.
• But to really put this issue into perspective, I also have to note here that according to publicly available records, as cited in the above New York Times article, on average the elevators that are in place in the NYMTA subway system, break down 53 times per year. And the MTA’s own online apps, used to publicly share information on routes and stations and what connects with what and through which subway lines, are not kept effectively up to date for when these elevators are down and effectively not there. Sharing information with the public on subway systems maintenance, and where there are breakdowns or train reroutes is supposed to be a key functional capability for these publicly available online tools. But if the data bases that drive them are not kept up to date, anyone really needing an elevator at a given station cannot know if there is actually, functionally one there, until they get there to find out. And if it is not, they have to get back on a train and hope that they can find a station further along that route that does have a working elevator, else they cannot leave the MTA system!

I said at the end of Part 2 that I would also at least briefly address the issues of how the New York City’s MTA’s track and signaling systems are in disrepair, and how as a matter of irony the fare for a ride on the subway system has kept going up and up in spite of these and other failures to actually effectively prioritize or maintain this system. And I added that I would at least briefly make note of New York State’s current governor and his political ambitions, bookending the starting point to this example as that began with then Governor Rockefeller and his political ambitions.

I begin addressing, and as necessary re-explaining that here, by noting that some of the switching technology in place in the MTA’s critical control system literally dates back to the 1930’s. That takes legacy technology as an issue, to a whole new level, and technology obsolescence. And that failure to keep this system technologically up to date, or even just vaguely close to that is also the reason why there are still parts of the MTA tracks and station system where it is impossible to know precisely where a subway train is in it, until that train actually arrives at a next station and can be entered in for its actual location there. That lack of timely information forces train dispatchers to space out the trains a lot farther apart than they would have to if they could real-time know precisely where all of those trains are and between stations too.

On the other hand, this also means those trains all have to go slower too. And that is a good thing given the fact that the MTA is always playing catch-up on maintaining their rail lines themselves. They have to go slower due to an unacceptable risk of derailments from track failures, and as much as they have to because of possible collision risks, as might occur if they were to significantly speed up those trains. Together, this means that at best, the New York MTA is forced to offer reduced overall carrying capacity for its riders, and with more crowded subway cars for those who do get on and with train delays built into their system.

I began writing in Part 2 of how this system is a political football, and about how its finances and maintenance have been used politically and by many in power and for decades now: generations actually. Then Governor Rockefeller did this to help himself in a reelection bid and current Governor Cuomo is doing the same thing now as he seeks to further his own political ambitions, and the state legislature in Albany has been in political conflict with New York City for virtually as long as there have been New York City and Albany governments and politicians. And for all of this, critical infrastructure systems such as the New York City MTA serve as easy targets.

Note that the gaps and failings that I write of here as working examples, are lower priority because they are not politically sexy, to put it succinctly if not politely. The powers that be were able to come together finally, to extend the Second Avenue line three more stops going north up Manhattan’s east side. That is visible and very photogenic. But most of the time, as already noted in this series, when a station that already exists is refurbished, elevators are not included in that effort if there were none there already – and even when those stations undergo what is essentially a complete rebuild. No one pays attention to train signal and switch systems in a subway system – unless or until there is a major event such as a costly accident, such as a major derailment with fatalities. But even focusing for the moment on fatalities, when a track worker: an MTA employee dies on the job because of safety inadequacies that stem from systems obsolescence, that never seems to stay in the news longer than a current weather report would. Politics and public visibility and their interrelationships: they contribute to and in fact fundamentally shape all of what I am writing about here. Our neighbors in wheelchairs can be, I add too often are just as invisible and certainly in any spending and policy decision making as those 1930’s era signaling boxes and switches, located away from the subway platforms that riders see. And the problems that I write of here, simply continue on. And yes, the fares that MTA riders have to pay to use this service keep going up and up too.

I am going to turn in my next series installment to consider a positive example of how infrastructure systems can be built or rebuilt: the post-World War II European Recovery Program: commonly known as the Marshall Plan. And then I will step back to address the topics and issues of this series in more general terms. As part of that, I will explore and discuss the questions and issues of what gets supported and worked upon and why in this, and what is set aside in building and maintaining infrastructure systems. I will discuss China’s infrastructure building outreach as a part of that, as that nation seeks to extend and strengthen its position globally. And I will at least touch upon and make note of a variety of other infrastructure development and maintenance examples too.

Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings and series at Business Strategy and Operations – 5, and also at Page 1, Page 2, Page 3 and Page 4 of that directory. I also include this in Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time 3, and also see Page 1 and Page 2 of that directory. And I include this in my United Nations Global Alliance for ICT and Development (UN-GAID) directory too for its relevance there. I begin this series with an American example, but it addresses globally impactful issues and events.

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