By shutting down New York City’s subways, commuter rail, and roads for this week’s storm-that-wasn’t, Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) made the right call. According to meteorologists, the storm was going to be massive—three feet of snow and 50 mile-per-hour winds. The National Weather Service called it “historic.” Cuomo’s job was twofold: encourage people to buy food, medicine, and supplies before the storm hit, and get them to stay indoors during and after it hit. This is simply a public-safety numbers game. The more people you keep indoors, the more people you keep from slamming their cars into trees, slipping and hitting their heads, getting crushed by falling branches, or being electrocuted by downed wires. Consider that during two minor storms last year, two New Yorkers, including a pregnant woman getting groceries, died walking when private snowplows hit them. People who go out put not only themselves in danger but rescue workers as well.
The city has learned the hard way that the best way to keep people off the streets is by shutting down mass transit. Transit-union strikes in December 2005 and April 1980 sharply curtailed travel, even in good weather. Preemptively shutting down subways before Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012 worked well in keeping people home. Shutting down the transit system doesn’t just keep people off subways and commuter-rail trains—it empties the sidewalks and roads, too. It’s not safe for people to walk a mile on an unplowed sidewalk to a subway stop or to drive home from a commuter-rail station on an icy street. Shutting down transit also takes the decision to close or stay home out of the hands of employers and employees. If trains are running, workers feel the need to climb over snowbanks and skid over ice, risking life and limb to prove to their bosses and colleagues what conscientious workers they are. But if you can’t get to work, you don’t try.
Shutting down transit has other benefits in a dangerous storm. Keeping pedestrians off streets allows sanitation workers to plow those streets more efficiently. Logistically speaking, though, a transit shutdown must happen hours before a storm hits. As storms progress, they slow subway service. Doors freeze, ice builds up, switches and signals fail. If you’re going to shut down service, then, you must do so with enough time to get people home; the MTA can’t move people in one direction unless it can be sure that it can move them back the other way. Remember December 2010, when the MTA didn’t shut down transit, and 400 passengers wound up stranded on a freezing A train overnight?
The complaints about the transit shutdown are unrealistic. The flimsiest argument is that the storm fizzled, at least in New York. How were the governor and MTA officials to know that it would, when meteorologists were all predicting a monster? Some argue that the MTA should have restarted service earlier than rush hour on Tuesday morning, because it was clear that the storm was a bust hours before that. Maybe the MTA should have started up earlier Tuesday, but its performance was hardly an example of disaster incompetence. Other critics suggest that the MTA should have kept underground subways open while shuttering above-ground subway service in the outer boroughs. It’s something MTA officials can think about in the future, though these critics fail to realize how hard it is, from a public-relations perspective, to explain to harried passengers already on the move exactly which parts of which subway lines are open—especially as many passengers take trains that start above ground before entering Manhattan. Keeping one subway line open and shutting another also makes employers’ decisions to open or close more difficult.
The city never used to shut down the trains, some said after the storm had passed. We’ve all become babies. Maybe, but our threshold for death and injury also used to be much higher. In 1990, 2,245 New Yorkers were murdered; last year, 333 were killed. In 1990, New York saw 701 traffic deaths; last year, 250 people died, the fewest in a century. If greater care for human life makes us weak, so be it.
Another argument is that Governor Cuomo and the MTA failed to follow good procedures and weren’t upfront with the public. Yes, the MTA should really give 24 hours’ notice before a shutdown, as it did during Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy. That way, businesses have more time to get key employees hotel rooms and make other arrangements. Yet more notice, of course, involves more risk that the forecast is wrong. As for providing enough notice after officials made their decision: the governor, who ultimately controls the MTA, made his decision and informed Mayor de Blasio. Cuomo told the public 15 minutes later, six hours ahead of the shutdown. It’s hard to see what’s wrong with such a timeline.
Yet another contention is that Cuomo shut the subways down because he seeks dictator-style control over the MTA and the public. During Superstorm Sandy, Cuomo did develop a habit of centrally commanding the MTA. And yes, there is good reason for the public to worry about the governor’s self-aggrandizing interference in the MTA’s everyday operations. The public should worry more, however, about how the governor forced the MTA into an unaffordable labor deal with big rail unions last summer ahead of his reelection, or about how he called the MTA’s capital-investment plan “bloated,” even as he expects the MTA to build projects not included in the program.
Then there are the inevitable stories of people stranded. Yes, some critical workers—doctors, nurses, and, um, reporters—found themselves stuck. But having to be creative in getting around during an emergency is part of the job of a worker who can’t stay home. Hospitals, nursing homes, and news organizations have contingency plans for such events. With six hours’ notice of the subway shutdown and against the backdrop of previous disasters, there’s no excuse for leaving your vital workers with no clue what to do. Their struggles don’t outweigh the fact that shutting down the transit system kept the vast majority of the 1.2 million overnight riders off the streets.
WNYC reported on the story of a 61-year-old woman, Wyndolan Rosa, her daughter, and her five-year-old grandson, who decided that late Monday night was a good time to make a long subway trip from the Bronx to Brooklyn. “They were hoping to renovate their new East New York apartment Tuesday,” the story notes, so they “hopped on a train despite the snowstorm.” They found themselves stranded at midnight after subway service had stopped. They took refuge at a Dunkin’ Donuts before trudging six miles overnight back to their Brooklyn home.
Some cite the Rosa family tale as proof that the MTA should have maintained service. All it shows is that some people are so clueless that they either pay no attention to the weather or will go out no matter what. By hammering home in strong language that the storm was potentially dangerous and that transit was closing, the state, the city, and the MTA got this message across to most people and likely saved people from real harm. Rosa told WNYC that “next time there’s a blizzard, she probably won’t venture out.” Good.