State of the Subways Report Card

News Release

I. Findings
Chart One: Straphangers Campaign Line Ratings
Chart Two: How Does Your Subway Line Rate?
Chart Three: Best to Worst Subway Lines by Indicator
Chart Four: Line Ratings, 1997-2001

II. Summary of Methodology

III. Why a Report Card on the State of the Subways?

IV. Profiles of 20 Subway Lines

V. Appendix

I. Findings

What do subway riders want?

They want short waits, regular and reliable service, a chance for a seat, a clean car and announcements that tell them what they need to know. That’s what MTA New York City Transit’s own polling of its riders show.

This fifth annual "State of the Subways" report card tells riders how their lines do on key aspects of service. We look at six measures of subway performance for the city’s 20 major subway lines, using recent data compiled by MTA New York City Transit, mostly for the last half of 2000. Much of the information has not been released publicly before on a line-by-line basis.

Our report card has three parts: First is a comparison of service on 20 lines, as detailed in the attached charts. Second, we give an overall "Line Rating" to each of 19 lines. Third, the report contains one-page profiles on each of the 20 lines, which can also be found at our web site: www.straphangers.org. These are intended to provide riders, officials, and communities with an easy-to-use summary of how their lines perform compared to others.

Our key findings present the following picture of how New York’s subways are doing:

1. The best subway line in the city is the Q, with a "Line Rating" of $1.25. The Q replaces the winner for the previous four years in a row, the 7. The Q ranked high because its cars break down the least in the system and it arrives with much greater regularity than most lines. The line did not get a higher rating because it has just an average performance on car cleanliness, chance of getting a seat during rush hours; and amount of service. It performed below average on announcements. Regularity is the measure of gaps in service or bunching together of trains. The Q runs between Coney Island, Brooklyn and to Queensbridge, Queens on weekdays, but not at night or on weekends. The 7 was one of only two of the 19 subway lines whose ratings declined, with a worse breakdown rate, more crowding and poorer announcements.

2. The worst subway line is the C—with a Line Rating of 65 cents. It replaced the 5 as the worst line in our last report. The C line performed below average on four measures: amount of service; chances of getting a seat during rush hour; car breakdowns; and adequate subway car announcements. The C line did not receive a lower rating because it arrives with a high degree of regularity and its cars are cleaner than the system average. The line operates between northern Manhattan and East New York, Brooklyn.

3. The subways improved in the last year: Our Line Ratings went up on 14 of 19 subway lines; ratings declined on only two; and stayed the same on three. The 14 lines with better ratings are the: 1/9, 2, 3, 5, 6, A, B, D, E, F, L, N, Q and R. The two lines with worse ratings are the: 7 and the J/Z. The three unchanged lines are the: 4, C and M.

4. Why the overall improvement? The subways grew slightly more regular, had much fewer breakdowns, and had cleaner cars. However, other key factors remained unchanged—amount of service and change of getting a seat at peak periods—and announcements grew worse. Regularity of service—how often trains arrive without bunching or gaps in service—improved from 77% to 79%; the distance that subway cars travel on average without breakdowns leaped from 86,843 miles in 1999 to 110,586 miles in 2000; and 85% of subway cars were clean in 2000 compared to 75% in 1999.

5. The subways remain crowded: A rider’s chance of getting a seat during the most crowded rush-hour point continued at 28%, down from 31% two years ago. Ten lines grew more crowded: 4, 5, 7, B, E, J/Z, L, M, Q, and R. Nine lines grew less crowded: 1/9, 2, 3, 6, A, C, D, F, and N. There was also no improvement in scheduled times between trains during rush hours. Rush-hour crowding remains intolerably high because service has lagged behind exploding ridership. MTA officials admit that subway ridership has increased 29% between 1996 and 2001, but has been met with only an 11% increase in service—with much of that targeted to nights and weekends. The lag is due to two factors: ungenerous crowding standards set by transit officials and a lack of capacity, including a shortage of subway cars and an aged signal system. In June, five former city transportation commissioners called for more subway service, including no more than a four-minute scheduled wait on any subway line and a guaranteed seat during non-rush hours.

6. Results for the passenger environment were mixed: Subway cars grew cleaner in the last year, but announcements were poorer. Both mirror trends found in independent surveys by the Straphangers Campaign:

  • Cleanliness: Fourteen of 20 lines grew cleaner; six grew dirtier. System-wide, the percentage of subway cars with clean seats and floors increased from 75% to 85%. The 14 cleaner lines are the: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, B, D, E, F, J/Z, L, M, and Q. The six lines that were dirtier are the: 1/9, A, C, G, N and R. This improvement comes after transit officials restored more than two hundred subway car cleaners that had been cut in 1994.
  • Announcements: Fifteen of 20 lines provided fewer correct and understandable announcements; five improved on announcements; one stayed the same. System-wide, the percentage of cars with correct and understandable announcements declined, from 60% to 48%. The 15 lines with poorer announcements are: 1/9, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, A, C, D, E, G, J/Z, M, N and Q. The five improved lines are the: 5, B, F and L. The R line remained unchanged.

7. Measures of reliability improved: Subway cars broke down less often and were more regular, with fewer bunched trains or gaps in service:

  • Breakdowns: Seventeen of 20 lines experienced fewer delays due to mechanical problems; three lines had a greater breakdown rate. The improved lines are the: 1/9, 2, 3, 5, 6, A, B, C, D, E, F, J/Z, L, M, N, Q, and R. The lines with more breakdowns are the: 4, 7, and G.
  • Regularity: Eleven of 20 lines grew more regular, with fewer gaps in service and bunching; five worsened; and four stayed the same. The 11 lines which grew better on this measure are: 5, 6, B, C, D, E, G, M, N, Q and R. The five lines which grew worse were the: 2, 4, 7, F and L. The 1/9, 3, A and J/Z lines remained unchanged.

8. The most improved line is the D; its Line Rating went from 85 cents to $1.20. The D showed improvement on four measures: greater regularity, a lower car breakdown rate, less crowding, and cleaner cars. The D more than doubled the distance its cars travel between breakdowns, going from 114,743 miles between mechanical failures to 244,684 miles. Announcements grew worse on the line and its scheduled service remained the same. The last measure— amount of service—did not change.

9. Only two lines declined, the 7 and J/Z: The line rating for the 7 declined from $1.05 to a 95 cent rating and the J/Z dropped from 95 cents to 85 cents. The 7 arrived more irregularly, was more crowded, broke down more often and provided poorer announcements. However, cleanliness on the 7 improved and there was no change in amount of service. The J/Z line was more crowded and provided poorer announcements.

10. There are great disparities in how subway lines perform. For example, the Q had the best record on delays caused by car mechanical failures: once every 276,476 miles. The G line had the worst, experiencing breakdown delays four times as often: once every 65,477 miles. The same wide disparities among lines could be seen for all our measures:

  • Cleanliness: The M and D were the cleanest lines, with 6% of their cars having moderate or heavy dirt, while 32% of cars on the A, the dirtiest line, had moderate or heavy dirt—a huge range.
  • Chance of getting a seat: We rate a rider’s chance of getting a seat at the most congested point on the line. We found the best chance is on the B, where riders had a 37% chance of getting a seat. The N ranked worst, where riders had only a 19% chance of getting a seat.
  • Amount of scheduled service: The 6 has the most scheduled service, with 3-minute intervals between trains during rush hours. Of the 19 lines we give line ratings, the C ranks worst, with 9 to 10 minute intervals between trains during this period. (The G provides even less service, with scheduled intervals of 10 minutes. It was not given a rating because of non-comparable data on crowding.)
  • Regularity of service: For the fourth year in a row, the line with the greatest regularity of service is the M. It stuck to its scheduled intervals of service 91% of the time; the line experiences significant gaps in service or bunching of trains only 9% of the time. The least regular line is the 1/9, which performed with regularity only 64% of the time.
  • In-car announcements: The E line had the highest rate of adequate announcements made in its subway cars, 61%. The 4 and L were the worst, at a poor 41%.

All the findings described above are detailed in the attached charts and profiles. Chart One lists the Line Ratings for 19 subway lines. The differences among lines are detailed in Chart Two.
Chart Three ranks lines from best to worst on each measure. Chart Four compares current Line Ratings with those of the previous four years. Following the charts are detailed one-page profiles for 20 subway lines.

II. Summary of Methodology

The NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign reviewed extensive MTA New York City Transit data on the quality and quantity of service on 20 subway lines. We used the latest comparable data available, largely the second half of 2000. Several of the data items have not been publicly released before on a line-by-line basis. We then calculated a Line Rating—intended as a shorthand tool to allow comparisons among lines—for 19 subway lines, as follows:

First, we formulated a scale of the relative importance of measures of subway service. This was based on a survey we conducted of a panel of transit experts and riders, and an official survey of riders by MTA New York City Transit. The six measures were weighted as follows:

Amount of service
  • scheduled amount of service30%
Dependability of service
  • percent of trains arriving at regular intervals   22.5%
  • breakdown rate12.5%
  • chance of getting a seat15%
  • interior cleanliness10%
  • adequacy of in-car announcements10%

Second, for each measure, we compared each line’s 2000 performance to the best- and worst-performing lines of 1996. Performance in 1996—our first year for calculating Line Ratings—serves as a baseline. As we said in our 1997 report, Line Ratings "will allow us to use the same formula for ranking service on subway lines in the future. As such, it will be a fair and objective barometer for gauging whether service has improved, stayed the same, or deteriorated over time."

A line in 2000 equaling the 1996 system best would receive a score of 100 for that indicator, while a 2000 line matching the system low would receive a score of 0. Thus, most lines in 2000 received a score between 0 and 100 for each measurement. In some cases a line was awarded a score outside of that range, if it performed better than the best line in 1996, or worse than the worst line.

These scores were then multiplied by the percentage weight of each indicator, and added up to reach an overall raw score. Below is an illustration of calculations for a line, in this case the 4.



4 line value
including best and worst in system

4 line score
out of 100


4 line
adjusted score

Scheduled service

AM rush–4 min; midday–6 min; PM rush–4 min




Service regularity

67% (best–91%; worst–64%)




Breakdown rate

162,894 miles (best–276,476; worst–65,477 miles)





26% seated (best–37%; worst–19%)





91% clean (best–94%; worst–68%)





41% adequate (best–61%; 4 is worst)




Adjusted score total

Best–88 pts–Q line; Worst–41 pts–C line


4 line–61 pts.

Third, the summed totals were then placed on a scale which emphasizes the relative differences between scores nearest the top and bottom of the scale. (See Appendix I.)

Finally, we converted each line’s summed raw score to a Line Rating. We created a formula with assistance from independent transit experts. A line scoring on average, at the 50th percentile of 19 lines for all six performance measures in 1996 (the baseline year) would receive a Line Rating of 75. A line which matched the 95th percentile of this range would be rated $1.50.

Officials at MTA New York City Transit reviewed the line profiles and ratings in 1997. They concluded: "Although it could obviously be debated as to which indicators are most important to the transit customer, we feel that the measures that you selected for the profiles are a good barometer in generally representing a route’s performance characteristics. . . Further, the format of your profiles. . .is clear and should cause no difficulty in the way the public interprets the information." Their full comments can be found in Appendix I, which presents a more detailed description of our methodology. Transit officials were also sent an advance summary of the findings for this year's State of the Subways report card.

In May 2001, transit officials made major changes in how several of the indicators are derived. The Straphangers Campaign unsuccessfully urged New York City Transit to re-consider its new methodologies, because of our concerns about the fairness of these measures and the loss of comparability with past indicators. Since transit officials rejected our request to re-calculate measures back to 1996 in line with their adopted changes, some historical comparability may be lost in future State of the Subways reports.

III. Why A Report Card on the State of the Subways?

Why does the Straphangers Campaign publish a yearly report card on the subways?

First, riders want information on the quality of their trips. That’s what public opinion polls conducted by transit officials show. "Customers have an interest in knowing how their line, as well as the overall system, is doing," according to an MTA New York City Transit telephone survey of 950 riders in 1998.

Indeed, the poll found that 55% of customers would like service information to be posted at subway stations—even when asked to weigh posting in the context of competing spending priorities. Riders expressed strong interest in getting such information as "how well the line keeps to schedules, how much service is scheduled and how well announcements are made."

State legislation—Assembly bill 5867/S.3082—is pending in Albany to require posters at subway stations with statistics on how each station’s line(s) are performing on basic measures of service. The bill passed the State Assembly in recent years, where it is sponsored by Assembly Member Catherine Nolan. The bill is sponsored in the State Senate by Frank Padavan.

Unfortunately, officials at MTA New York City Transit oppose the bill. They say that "performance numbers are already available to our riders upon request or at regularly scheduled public meetings" and they do not support "the routine public posting of route specific performance measures throughout the transit system."

Second, we want to give a picture of where the subways are headed. We are encouraged that the subways showed improvement in several areas in the past year.

Line Ratings improved for 14 of 19 subway lines; ratings declined on only two; and stayed the same on three.

On the plus side, subway cars broke down less often, arrived more regularly and grew significantly cleaner in the last year..

On the downside, the subways remain crowded, scheduled service during rush-hours has not significantly increased and announcements have grown poorer on a majority of lines.

It’s not surprising that there’s more crowding. Transit service has lagged badly behind an explosive growth in both subway and bus ridership. MTA officials admit that subway ridership has increased 29% between 1996 and 2001, but has been met with only an 11% increase in service—with much of that targeted to nights and weekends.

The lag is due to two factors: ungenerous crowding standards set by transit officials and a lack of capacity, including a shortage of subway cars and an aged signal system.

What would be a good, attractive level of service? The transit system’s current standards for service are ungenerous. On some lines, constraints like the capacity of signal systems or the lack of available cars make even those standards unachievable.

The standard is for the system to provide standing passengers a minimum of three square feet during rush hour, according to MTA New York City Transit’s published "loading guidelines."

Consider that three square feet is a tight square measuring 1.7 feet on each side. That’s why many times riders are traveling with someone’s elbow in their ribs. And several lines don’t meet the standard.

The guidelines also say that "seats will be provided for all customers" on most lines during weekday middays and evenings and on weekends. Much of the time this is simply untrue. In June, five former city transportation commissioners joined with a diverse coalition of business, labor, environmental and civic groups to call for more generous standards of service.

The plan—called "Unclogging New York"—asks the next mayor to make more service a key priority : "The city should demand there be no more than a four-minute scheduled rush-hour wait on any of the city's 20 subway lines—and that every rider be able to get a seat in the off-hours. More service for both subways and buses is desperately needed to meet the increasing ridership demands brought on by MetroCard and the continuing strength of our economy."

Currently, riders on 10 of the 20 major subway lines have scheduled afternoon rush-hour waits of six minutes or more. That compares poorly with other world cities—like Paris, Moscow, London and Tokyo—where trains come every one-and-a-half to four minutes during rush hour.

The Straphangers Campaign acknowledges that there are serious challenges in providing more attractive levels of service, such as the limits of old technology signal systems and the lack of availability of subway cars.

In the short run, there are many lines where service could be added now. That’s what transit officials should do. Costs are manageable; transit officials agreed with the assessment of the New York City Independent Budget Office that a city-wide four-minute headway for 90 minutes of the peak rush would cost between $30 and $40 million annually.

In the long run, the MTA should be making the capital investments that would permit more frequent service.

In the fall of 1999, the Empire State Transportation Alliance—a broad coalition of civic, business and labor groups—called on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to buy 500 more subway cars than it planned. The coalition’s goal was to get more subway cars to provide more service. Unfortunately, the MTA has not yet moved to increase its car purchases and it is moving slowly to modernize signals to allow trains to run closer together.

The Straphangers Campaign will continue to work with other groups and officials in turning around the mindset of transit officials on service levels.

A copy of the Unclogging New York plan can be found at Appendix II. It calls on the next mayor to take a wide range of actions to reduce congestion in the city. These include major investments such as a Second Avenue Subway and a rail freight harbor tunnel; more priority for buses on city streets; a fairer bridge and tunnel toll system; requiring top level city officials to use transit regularly; and offering broader TransitChek options to more city employees.

Lastly, our report aims to help riders and communities win better service and hold transit managers accountable. At the Straphangers Campaign, we hear from many riders and neighborhood groups. Often they’ll say "Our line has got to be the worst" or "We must be on the most crowded line" or "My line is much better than others."

For riders and officials on lines receiving a poor level of service, our report will help them make the case for improvements, ranging from increases in service to major repairs. For those on better lines, the report will either highlight areas for improvement—or spark discussion on what constitutes decent service.

It is our hope that the thousands of New Yorkers who care about the city’s transit system will use this report to hold transit managers accountable. That is why each of the profiles of 20 lines contains the telephone number for the superintendent responsible for that line.

This report is part of a series of studies on subway and bus service. For example, in April, we issued an analysis of city buses. It found that service on many bus routes is not keeping pace with growing ridership.

Our reports can be found at our web site, www.straphangers.org, as can our profiles.

Our plans call for continuing to issue major state of the subways and buses reports in the coming years, along with field surveys of specific aspects of service, such as car cleanliness, announcements, and station conditions.

We hope that these efforts—combined with the concern and activism of many thousands of city transit riders—will win better subways and buses for New York City.

www.straphangers.org | www.nypirg.org