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August 29, 2017

Informed Archives: The Straphangers Campaign and the NYC Subway System

by Meredith Mann.

August 29, 2017

We are being held in the station due to train traffic ahead of us.  We apologize for the inconvenience and should be moving shortly.  Thank you for your patience.

These words are familiar to New York City residents and visitors, likely summoning unpleasant memories of a recent commute gone wrong.  Much attention has been paid lately to the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) during what has been termed the “Summer of Hell,” months marked by constant service interruptions, delays, and infrastructural failures.  Instead of simply bemoaning the current state of affairs, we can look to a citizen’s group that has been actively working toward improving the City transit system for almost forty years.  The Straphangers Campaign, affiliated with the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), formed in 1979 during another nadir of subway service.  It saw a system so beset with crime and inefficiencies that it had riders abandoning mass transit in droves.  The Manuscripts and Archives Division holds the records of the Straphangers Campaign, through which we can see the situation they inherited, the work they performed, and the accomplishments they achieved.  Examining their documented activity may suggest to us a light at the end of the tunnel that isn’t, as their newsletter once joked, “just a train on fire.”

Brochure. NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign records. Manuscripts and Archives Division.
Brochure. NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign records. Manuscripts and Archives Division.
Subway token. 1990s. Privately owned.
Subway token. 1990s. Privately owned.

The first series of the Straphangers Campaign records chronicle the early years of the organization, and are mostly organized by issue.  Many of these are likely familiar to today’s straphanger: air conditioning, fare prices, crime, safety, and subway announcements.  Digging into these folders, however, reveals a transit dystopia far beyond current conditions.  In 1979, the year the Campaign was founded, there were sixteen homicides in transit stations, over thirty recorded sexual assaults, and almost 10,000 cases of theft.  In 1981, only 40% of subway cars and 85% of buses were equipped with air conditioning; moreover, having air conditioning did not ensure that it was functional or used.  That same year, the MTA president proposed only using bus air conditioning when temperatures exceeded ninety degrees.  Meanwhile, subway and bus fares had climbed from fifty to ninety cents between 1980 and 1985.  New Yorkers were paying more and more for deteriorating service.

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Button associated with 1981 State of the Subways report. NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign records. Manuscripts and Archives Division.
Button associated with 1981 "State of the Subways" report. NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign records. Manuscripts and Archives Division.

The newly-formed Straphangers Campaign used a variety of methods to take on these shortcomings, which ranged from simply irritating to dangerous.  They put pressure on local and MTA officials through newspaper editorials, radio spots, direct letters, press releases, and testimony at transit and local government meetings.  They informed their fellow riders by surveying passengers, issuing regular newsletters and reports, and passing out buttons and flyers.  Their annual “State of the Subways” report, published to this day, provides a line-by-line analysis of subway performance and outs the worst offenders.

Communication was an early target of the organization.  Frequent commuters have doubtless seen “Train Approaching” signs — ceiling-mounted displays near attendant booths meant to light up when a subway arrives in a station.  These “annunciators” were one of the Campaign’s first pushes.  Since subway platforms were hotspots for crime — platform lights were frequently vandalized, and night-time riders had a one in forty chance of being the victim of a felony in 1981 — annunciators allowed riders to spend as little time at the platform as necessary.  Rather, they could congregate together by the well-lit, staffed token booth and venture to the platform only when the annunciator indicated a nearby train.  

To increase the number of annunciators throughout the subway system, the Campaign employed a strategy of attempting to work through “official” channels, then generating public pressure when such methods stalled.  Campaign records include correspondence between staff attorney Gene Russianoff and New York City Transit Authority (variously called the NYCTA, TA, or the downright Orwellian “Authority”) officials on the extent and proposed expansion of annunciators throughout the system.  After several months of inaction, Campaign Director Michael Pratt brought their message directly to the public via a WRFM radio broadcast.  

Conductor announcements were another communications goal.  We may vent our frustrations about hopelessly garbled announcements on older trains or inscrutably vague updates on newer ones, but we owe thanks partially to the Straphangers Campaign that we hear any announcements at all.  After the MTA and City Mayor’s office jointly promised to improve subway announcements in 1982, the Campaign gauged the results of their pledge with a two-month survey by 41 Campaign volunteers.  The resulting 1983 report “What Did They Say?” indicated that no announcements were made for 46% of subway delays and 83% of train reroutes.  Conductors regularly announced the names of stations and available transfers in fewer than 13% of surveyed trips.  “Our study shows that subway riders should have as much faith in the TA’s new announcement program as they do in announcements that ‘there is a train right behind  this one,’” jeered Russianoff, a dig that still resonates today.

Excerpt from “Tokens and Slugs” portion of Straphangers Campaign newsletter. 1985. NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign records. Manuscripts and Archives Division.
Excerpt from "Tokens and Slugs" portion of Straphangers Campaign newsletter. 1985. NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign records. Manuscripts and Archives Division.

The Campaign publicized their report with a news release, WINS radio editorial broadcast, and an op/ed in the New York Daily News.  This last seems to have been particularly effective, as a February 1983 newsletter of the Transport Workers Union of America noted that it “has, as usual, the Authority panic stricken and has put the heat on.”

Poster. 1986. NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign records. Manuscripts and Archives Division.
Poster. 1986. NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign records. Manuscripts and Archives Division.

One of the criticisms levied by the Campaign was the fact that the TA had not distributed its new communications training manual to employees in the wake of its promise to improve subway announcements.  Included within the records is a copy of this manual, which details scripts for routine announcements such as transfers, delays, and “points of interest” (including The New York Public Library), as well as advice on modulating volume and tone of voice.  The manual requires that delays be announced within two minutes of the train stopping, with updates every three minutes thereafter.  It notes, “Announcements should give a reason for delay: ‘Due to brake problems on the train ahead of us,’ ‘Due to an electrical problem in Queens,’ etc.  However, care must be taken not to alarm the passengers or give any cause for panic, so do not give specific details of causes for delays [if] they are due to calamities such as derailments, collisions, or fires.”  As reported in the New York Times, the MTA has recently changed this policy, promising more honest and transparent announcements from conductors to riders.  

NYCTA Communications Training Manual cover and interior page. 1982. NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign records. Manuscripts and Archives Division.
NYCTA Communications Training Manual cover and interior page. NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign records. Manuscripts and Archives Division.

As a result of their efforts, the Straphangers Campaign has had a hand in multiple transit success stories: monthly passes and automatic fares (the MetroCard), continuation of the Franklin Avenue shuttle, the long-awaited Second Avenue subway, decreases in crime and graffiti, removal of PVC pipe from the subway network, establishment of the watchdog State Public Transportation Safety Board, the end of two-fare zones, and increases in funding to the transit system, among others.  Those interested in exploring its past can consult its records, while those interested in contributing to its future can visit its website.

Letter with updates on the Second Avenue Subway. 1963. NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign records. Manuscripts and Archives Division.
Letter with updates on the Second Avenue Subway. 1963. NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign records. Manuscripts and Archives Division.

Further Reading

To support research of New York City public transit, the Manuscripts and Archives Division also holds the Penn Central Transportation Company records and the West Side and Yonkers Patent Railroad Company bonds subscription list, as well as papers from William J. Wilgus, Robert Charles Lafferty, David Gurin, August Belmont, Stephen Schmidt, William J. Boucher, and George Lathrop Rives.  Even more collections are available for those interested in the broader topic of urban planning.  For background into obsolete City transit terminology, helpful in parsing the language of the Straphangers Campaign records, consider the following:

About the Informed Archives Series

Archival collections and rare printed works at The New York Public Library preserve unique evidence of human activity and achievement that form a basis for the study of political, social, economic, and cultural history.  These materials have special importance not only to scholars, but also to citizens interested in historic parallels with current events. The Informed Archives blog series aims to inspire community engagement by highlighting particular collections, contextualizing their creation, and promoting their contents.   Through illustrating the vitality of our shared documentary record, we hope to encourage conversation and new readership.

Meredith Mann

View all posts by Meredith Mann