A list of New York City’s Broken Infrastructure

I live in New York City or “the broken website everyone uses” as @xuhulk coined. Some days it is a truly marvelous place and other days, a marvel that anyone can even live here.

I’ve looked for a general list of New York City’s infrastructure problems but I have not found even a single one. While I could certainly go on about the things that are great about NYC, I want to be able to be honest about the city’s shortcomings. A list of infrastructure issues would setup a focused prompt for conversations about where to start improving NYC. We may not be able to agree about what to do about any of these issues, but hopefully we can agree on the current reality.

Here I’ve loosely documented some of the major pieces of physical infrastructure that are broken in NYC. The list does not include national problems that only incidentally apply to NYC and focuses on issues that are best represented by our most populous and dense city. For the purposes of this piece, I’m defining infrastructure as “the basic physical structures needed to operate a city.”

I don’t want this list to be something needlessly negative but a list to help us New Yorkers focus. If we want to talk about what making NYC better, where should we start? Wikipedia does a very good job putting a positive spin on NYC’s environmental issues here. While broader than infrastructure and overly positive, it is worth a read. I learned that while NYC is responsible for 1% of the US’s greenhouse gas emissions, it makes up 2.7% of the total population — making NYC significantly more environmentally friendly than cities such as Portland and SF.

Much like NYC, this document is intended to be a constant work in progress rather some authoritative unchanging thing. I am no expert on this, only an interested observer. If you have any recommendations, please contact me or collaborate on the post on Github.


1. Trains

Timeliness: MTA trains run on time 74% of the time in NYC. [source]

Expansion: Until late 2015, the train routes had not expanded since WWII.

  • The only recent new train line, the 2nd Ave subway, is taking a while.
  • Plans for the 2nd Ave subway started in 1919 and initial funding was approved as part of a larger plan in 1929.
  • Due to the great depression, WWII and funding challenges, digging on the 2nd Ave subway did not begin until 1972. Digging is expected to finish in 2016 and the stations are expected to fully open in 2029.

Cost: The subway is 5–7x more expensive than subways in comparable cities like Hong Kong, Paris or Singapore.

  • The 2nd Ave subway costs about $2.3 billion per mile. Subway tunnels in other dense, first-world cities can vary widely in cost, but almost always are between $200 million and $1 billion per mile of route. [source]
  • The recently opened Fulton Center station is the second most expensive train station in the world, second to the PATH station under the WTC. [source]

Old signaling (called ‘Fixed-block signals) make it difficult to know where trains actually are or how fast they are traveling. [further reading]

  • These old signals are why few lines have estimated arrival times for trains — due to these signals, no one knows where the trains are or how fast they are going.
  • Communications-Cased Train Control or CBTC is a modern technology the MTA is slowly rolling out. CBTC allows a central operator to know more precisely where trains are on the tracks and thus run them more closely together. [source]
  • CBCT was installed on the L & 7 but took 18 years to install across both lines.
  • Automatic Train Supervision or ATS is a stopgap solution installed on the 4,5,6 line in the 90s. The technology is more expensive to maintain and less fully featured than CBCT (does not include the ability to control trains), but it was invented earlier. ATS implementation began in 1992. It cost $220 million and took 5 years longer than it was supposed to. [source]
  • Highly recommend watching this video on how CBCT and Fixed Block signals work.

Other issues

  • Old R32 Trains have been running on the tracks since 1964 [source]
  • Disaster preparedness is a real issue (see Sandy closings).
  • Little Wifi or even cell phone reception on the subway.
  • Heating/cooling in the stations.
  • Track fires are an issue [source].

2. Trash

  • Trash collection and processing costs 2.3 billion per year. [source]
  • Roosevelt Island has a network of pneumatic tubes to aid in trash removal. [source]
  • The 10 year #OneNYC plan seeks to address the trash problem but doesn’t provide much clarity around specific changes that will happen over the next 10 years.
  • The city only recycles 15 percent of residential waste. [source]
  • Since closing the Fresh Kills landfill (due to local and EPA pressure) in 2001, there hasn’t been a local way to dispose of ~50,000 tons of residential and commercial waste every single day.
  • Currently, 76 percent of the city’s residential trash is sent to landfills (in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and South Carolina), 14 percent is recycled, and 10 percent is converted to energy. [source]

3. Water

Supply: Until late 2013, NYC only had two water tunnels. If either tunnel failed, NYC would be out of water for 2–3 YEARS.

  • The NYC water tunnels are ~100 years old and supply 20 million people.
  • NYC water comes from the Catskills and requires very little treatment.
  • Construction on Tunnel #3 began in 1970 and it became operational in 2013 but is not complete. The final phase 3 and 4 of Tunnel #3 is expected to finish in 2020. 24 people have died building it.
  • Check out this write up about the story of building Tunnel #3.

Tunnel #1 and #2 are ~100 years old and very leaky / broken but no one is sure how broken!

  • If we turn off Tunnel #1 or Tunnel #2 to repair, we don’t know if we will be able to turn them on again.
  • Since tunnel #3 is operational, the city plans to inspect and repair Tunnel #1 and #2 which have not been inspected since construction.

4. Sewage

Combined Sewers

  • Approximately 70 percent of NYC’s sewers are combined. Household and industrial wastewater, rainwater, and street runoff -1.3 billion gallons daily- are all collected in the same sewers and conveyed together to the City’s 14 treatment plants.
  • This means that during floods, water from all these sources flows through the streets.
  • During heavy rains or snow, combined sewers can fill to capacity and are then unable to carry household and storm sewage to treatment plants. The mix of excess stormwater and untreated sewage must be released directly into the city’s waterways. [source]

Superfund sites on the National Priorities List such as Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal.

  • Among other issues, the Gowanus Canal has gonorrhea. [source]
  • Newtown Creek contains a baffling 30 million gallons of spilled oil. [source]

Flood risk has risen 20x since late 1884s. [source]

  • Curious about what factors lead to this. Global warming?

5. Communications

  • Time Warner has a monopoly on internet and cable delivery in the City. Id does not deliver competitive pricing or quality service (it has 1.5 stars on yelp).
  • Comcast and Time Warner are under investigation for slow internet speed. [source]
  • Verizon FIOS rollout has not gone well. The city is currently investigating Verizon for “An egregious failure on the part of Verizon to deliver on the FIOS agreement.” [source]
  • The 2008 franchise agreement mandated that Verizon complete requests to connect buildings to the fiber-optic cables in the street (called a non-standard installation) within a year at the very most. Towards the end of 2015 there are over 40,00 outstanding requests.
  • Cell infrastructure is largely pretty good for most carriers but I haven’t found much information on it aside from consumer reviews.

6. Energy

  • The city gets 98 percent of its electricity from natural gas. And natural gas meets 65 percent of heating needs. [source]

Marcellus natural gas pipeline

  • The pipeline, while it is a modern way to deliver natural gas, the natural gas is sourced through fracking which causes a wide array of environmental problems. [source]
  • Check out this 3 part series on the environmental and economic issues around fracking in New York State.
  • New York State has banned fracking, but a large portion of our natural gas (not sure how much) comes from Pennsylvania. [source]

Old Pipes: There are over 6,300 miles of very old natural gas pipes under the city. They leak and break causing explosions. [source]

  • “In 2012 alone, Con Edison and National Grid, the other distributor of natural gas in the city, reported 9,906 leaks in their combined systems, which serve the city and Westchester County. More than half of them were considered hazardous because of the dangers they posed to people or property, federal records show”. [source]
  • Con Edison experienced 83 leaks for every 100 miles of main in 2012. [source]
  • In 2015, these old leaky pipes caused an explosion in the east village injuring 19 people.

7. Roads

Robert Moses’s Legacy

  • Robert Moses is credited with building every road in the city with ‘expressway’ and ‘parkway’ in its name — including the BQE, the Cross-Bronx expressway and the Triborough Bridge.
  • All of his roads and bridges were designed to NOT accommodate city busses. Robert Moses felt that the poor, people who ride the bus, should not be on his roads or going to his parks. [source]
  • In addition to being classist, Robert Moses was also very racist. Moses wanted to “keep African Americans from using pools in white neighborhoods by making the water too cold.” [source]
  • Since he had so much power, his classism and racism are built into the cities roads and lack of train infrastructure (he also stopped train development from 1930–1960).
  • Highly recommend the Bowery Boys podcast and reading The Power Broker for more on Robert Moses.

Traffic congestion is an issue

  • Mayor Bloomberg tried to enact Congestion Pricing in the city but it failed when the economy collapsed in 2008. It would have added traffic congestion fee to cars traveling to central Manhattan. [source]
  • Much of the traffic on Canal St. consists of trucks from Brooklyn, and Long Island on their way to New Jersey. Most could travel a more direct route over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge into Staten Island, and then over the Goethals Bridge into New Jersey, but they do not. The reason? A one-way toll for westbound traffic across the Verrazano (the bridge is owned by New Jersey). Most use the Manhattan Bridge-Canal Street-Holland Tunnel route for free. The result? Heavy pollution, and terrible congestion for downtown residents. [source]

Pedestrian safety and “The Rule of Two”

  • A driver has to be violating two misdemeanors at the same time when they hit a pedestrian for it to be the drivers fault. [source]
  • The act of hitting the pedestrian or cyclist with right of way doesn’t count as one of the two violations. [source]
  • Unless the driver is violating two misdemeanors when the accident occurs, killing a pedestrian walking with the signal results in a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. [source]
  • Under current laws created before pedestrian countdown clocks, if a pedestrian enters the street after hand starts flashing or the countdown begins, the driver can’t be held liable. [source]
  • Mayor de Blasio’s “Vision Zero” plan is showing mixed results [source]

I hope this list is a helpful as a broad overview of some of the issues NYC faces. A thesis could be written on most of the individual bullet points in this list much less the larger themes. I’ve tried to link to insightful and readable articles to help the reader dig into issues they are interested in but I know even that gives an extremely incomplete picture.

As I mentioned above, this is meant to be collaborative work in progress. If you have any contributions or want to pose some changes to this list please contact me or collaborate on the post on Github.