A New Zero Tolerance

New York City’s mass transit system is becoming more and more like the weather: Everybody complains about it but nobody does anything about it.

On Sunday morning, while many of us were still sleeping, the fares went up again. But unlike an overnight snowfall, it left no pretty picture of pristine white blanketing the urban landscape — only new price lists. Children large and small could have no pleasure frolicking in it, and it will not melt away by itself in time. It’s here to stay.

The base fare for subways and buses rose by 25 cents to $2.75, while the price of a 30-day MetroCard jumped by $4.50 to $116.50. The seven-day, unlimited-ride MetroCard went up by 3.3 percent to $31.

It’s the fifth increase in six years: a disturbing trend, and there’s no end in sight. On the contrary, there is ample indication that the future holds ever more fare increases.

This situation might be tolerable if the quality of service was being improved or at least maintained, but the opposite is the case. Transportation for the average, long-suffering commuter keeps getting more expensive, while service keeps getting worse.

Subway delays proliferated by some 45 percent from 2013 to 2014, according to MTA statistics. There was an average of over 43,000 weekday delays in the past 12 months. Overcrowding was blamed for over 15,000 delays in Jan. 2015. Weekday waits also worsened on numbered lines, including the 1, 2, 4,5, 6 and 7.

Just last week, fires on the 7 train route caused repeated delays and mounting frustration to the people who depend on it to get from Queens to Manhattan. In the same week, the L train, infamous for its overcrowding, failed commuters between Manhattan and Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, as “rail conditions” turned rush hour into a nightmare of waiting.

Some people are coping with it fatalistically. The higher costs of travel are inescapable, they believe, and as long as their income stays the same, cost-cutting at home is the only answer.

One newspaper canvassed city travelers who told about their various belt-tightening measures: spending less on cosmetics and clothes, drinking inferior coffee at the workplace instead of the preferred joe elsewhere (or skipping it altogether), or going without a breakfast treat, all just so they could afford to get to and from work every day. (People do find that they can do without many of the extras in their daily routine; it’s largely a matter of habit.)

For the baalei mussar, delays can also be taken as an opportunity to work on the traits of patience and humility. After all, trains and buses aren’t the only things beyond our control. We do not run the world and cannot expect everything to go our way. The unpredictability of the delays adds to the challenge.

However, while the ethical approach to life’s vicissitudes is fine on an individual level, it is not appropriate to the running of a great city. Mussar practice should never be done on someone else’s expense.

Actually, many New Yorkers are refusing to get used to less service for more money. Some people are trying to do something about it.

For example, the Straphangers Campaign has for years been active in transforming complaints into action, suffering into reform, and took a hand in the rehabilitation of the subway system in the 1980s and ’90s.

But even the Straphangers sound like the militancy has gone out of them. Staff attorney Gene Russianoff noted on Sunday that “riders are weary and angry. The outlook for future fares is very gloomy unless Gov. Andrew Cuomo finds new revenues to fill a $15-billion gap in funding vital rebuilding need over the next five years.”

Still, we take can encouragement from the success of previous campaigns. It was in the subways, after all, that Zero Tolerance proved itself, where the determined prosecution of turnstile jumpers brought more serious crimes down as well. The improvement in public safety since those dark times has been dramatic and lasting, due in no small part to grassroots lobbying. How fitting it would be, then, to apply the principle of Zero Tolerance in the subways and throughout the mass transit system — but in a new way.

What we need now is Zero Tolerance for subway inefficiency, crowding and filth. Zero tolerance for third-world standards. We should make a federal case out of it, for New York City is a showcase of the entire nation. Tourists come from all over the world to New York, and many are shocked at what they see. The subways of our city are vastly inferior to what one finds in Europe and Asia, and it has a demoralizing effect on us all.

As Andrew Albert, chair of the Transit Riders Council, said, “The fact that this is the case in the state with three-fourths of the country’s transit riders is shameful.”

What we need is Zero Tolerance for public officials who explain but don’t fix. It’s very nice that MTA officials acknowledge the problems and admit that New Yorkers have legitimate grievances about the horrendous, overpriced service they’re getting. But we need more than recognition: we need action, and solutions that will work for the long term, not until the next stop or the next breakdown.

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