Senior Director, Quality Assurance, New York City Transit
Kyle M. Kirschling is an urbanist who specializes in improving cities’ infrastructure. He is a licensed CPA and has a Master’s degree in Urban Planning from Columbia University.
He is the author of “An Economic Analysis of Rapid Transit in New York, 1870-2010,” an evaluation of the impact of private, public, and hybrid institutions for transit ownership and operation.
As an advisor to the New York City Transit Authority, he sped up subway trains (reversing a 23-year trend) by conceiving a new operations strategy, saving one to four minutes per train trip and increasing on-time performance from 67% to 81% in 12 months, at zero cost (the “Save Safe Seconds” campaign and “SPEED Unit,” as reported in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and elsewhere).
He presently runs an internal management consulting group at the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority to improve infrastructure maintenance for the subway division.
- If you could snap your fingers and make one change to the NYC region’s transportation, what would it be?
Make it radically faster. Twice as fast, at least. And make the region a model of urban mobility for the world. These are two changes, but it would only take one finger snapping.
Imagine if it took half the time to get anywhere in the region. Think of how your life could improve, especially after a year or two. I want speed because every second of travel time that can be reliably saved means, for instance, that we can reach a little bit better job, we can take classes at a school that is a bit more aligned with our life goals, we can find an apartment we like better, we can include more zip codes on dating apps and ultimately be better matched with a life partner. Speed expands our “opportunity circle” and thereby makes the world a better place.
Here’s where the finger snapping comes in. To do these two things, I would snap my fingers and open up our transportation market to competition and unleash our best minds on this problem. For instance, make it legal for someone (such as the Alfred Beach types) to build and operate their own transit network in the desert of bedrock below the city. Let them profit, too. Create a framework that is always open to potential new competitors, and fares can be unregulated. The Manhattan Elevated created the flat five cent fare in the 1880s as a volume-maximizing strategy to increase their profits. With a trustworthy system of property rights, the region could become the world’s hub of urban transportation innovation, providing a double benefit to the region.
- What is the most common misconception the public has about the NYC Subway, and how would you debunk the myth?
Before I answer, you should know that the thoughts and opinions expressed in this Q&A are my own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).
Now, three misconceptions immediately come to mind, but the one that interests me lately is the idea that the unions (and the collective bargaining agreements) are the biggest reason why the MTA cannot significantly reduce costs and cannot afford to expand the network much. I think that this misconception is also shared by many of my good colleagues at the MTA, understandably so.
To be sure, the unions represent the interests of their members, not those of passengers. That’s what the unions are for. Nonetheless, we could improve the MTA’s financial position and still have a highly paid workforce with a growth strategy and if the productivity were correspondingly high. In addition to growth strategies, I see lots of opportunities to increase productivity in ways that would simultaneously increase job satisfaction (and therefore be in the interests of the union members). In some cases, increasing morale and job satisfaction would itself contribute to higher productivity. For instance, discipline policies often discourage innovation.
I don’t yet know how to prove this, which is why it interests me. I certainly think that a productivity strategy is far more doable than trying to get major cuts in wages and/or benefits, and it’s more sustainable than new subsidies from taxpayers. Freight railroads in the United States and passenger railroads in Japan have well-paid unionized workforces, and they can afford it because management has figured out how to make them extremely productive. Doing this at the MTA would be a tough job requiring a lot of unsexy changes that few people would appreciate, so there’s little incentive to do this at present. I don’t think we can expect the MTA to take this on without paying much higher salaries to MTA executives. We’d also need to rethink capital spending in a way that prioritizes investments that increase labor productivity. Perhaps in future labor contracts, real wage growth could be linked to productivity growth, and this might even get the labor union interested in increasing productivity. For the union to get on board, however, I think the MTA would need to simultaneously be growing its transportation business, in order to take advantage of the productivity gains without significantly reducing the workforce.
- What sparked your passion to write this paper?
I wrote this paper (“Engineering the New York City Subway: the Thinking Behind the World’s Fastest and Most Convenient Rapid Transit System”) to inspire greater ambition and better design in urban infrastructure. I want big cities to keep getting bigger and better, so more people can enjoy life in the metropolis.
Planners often express despair and disappointment over projects that fall short of our hopes and dreams, like the Second Avenue Subway and AirTrain LaGuardia. I’m sympathetic, because I want to raise, not lower, our standards and expectations. Plus, it’s fun to complain sometimes. However, to achieve our hopes and dreams, it’s super important to understand and celebrate our successes, and the subway is a magnificent example. The engineers who designed it were facing extraordinary challenges and working in totally uncharted territory, they came up with a radical design that would depend on unproven technology, they faced heavy opposition from the public (including real estate interests), and yet they won the day. How? Through the excellence of their design and the soundness of their thinking. If they could do that then (with fewer resources and 19th Century technology), think what we could do now.
The subway is a symbol of New York City, but few seem to know why it has a subway in the first place. Understanding the thinking behind the unusual design reveals the impressive logic and the great lengths to which these engineers went to see their design perfected and realized. It is an amazing story, it makes me love this city, and it gives me emotional fuel to persevere and keep working for an even better future.
- Throughout your professional career, what is your proudest accomplishment?
I am definitely most proud of speeding up the subway. I poured my soul into it, fighting an uphill battle for years. Thus, it is deeply meaningful to me that I can report that trains are several minutes faster (in the range of 2 to 6 percent faster end-to-end running times), and service is more reliable (on-time performance). For this, I am indebted to Andy Byford for taking me seriously and giving me the opportunity of a lifetime to see my ideas implemented and actually make the subway faster. Governor Cuomo put his support behind the speed effort too–apparently the influence of “politics” is sometimes a good thing.
The average passenger might not perceive the improvements, but whether they know it or not, their opportunity circle is a little bit bigger and they have a little bit better life within reach. Happily, I do perceive the improvements, so I have the added benefit of getting a thrill up my spine every time I notice them on the subway.
- What career advice would you give to other YPT’ers interested in your career path?
Be a bureaucrat for a few years. If you want intimate knowledge of mass transit in the United States today and knowledge of what works and what doesn’t, there’s no place better than the public agencies that directly run big city transit systems. That’s where all the action is. Plus, you will be seriously popular at parties. I had no idea how many people I would encounter with such great interest in my job.
Once you have an understanding of how things work, fight the good fight, if you’re inclined. I’m a troublemaker, in the noblest sense of the word (as used by Charlan Nemeth). If that’s you, and if you have good-but-unpopular ideas, I say “do it.”
Try to understand why your good ideas are unpopular. This will help make sure that your ideas are, in fact, good. If, for instance, your idea would require your boss to have a lot of difficult conversations, solve that problem too. If you think you deserve it, take the moral high ground. Not to put down others, but rather to show how your idea would truly make the city a better place. That can have a very powerful impact.
Public agencies are not well-suited for innovation, but you can still have a real, positive impact. There are a lot of good people who will help you, if you first take the initiative. People will go above and beyond if they can clearly see the virtue, the justice, and the benefits of your idea. Even if you don’t succeed, just by trying you’ll build an inner pride and learn a ton of practical skills along the way.
- What would you want to learn more about or write about next?
Since snapping my fingers won’t do it, I’m doing research for a paper on how you might design a legal framework that enables homesteading of the city’s underground desert (the soil and bedrock beneath the city that presently serves no human purpose), and thereby attract entrepreneurs and investors to develop faster, cheaper, and better transit networks. This requires expertise in finance, and I’m excited to have Raymond Niles as my co-author, who is an economics professor, an expert on utility infrastructure finance and regulation, and a former Wall Street stock analyst.
Presently, I’m trying to come up with important infrastructure projects that could be built today were such a homesteading framework enacted. That is, projects that would (1) bring major, visible improvements to the transportation system, (2) be profitable with today’s technology, and (3) occupy the underground desert. If you have ideas, please let me know.
If you think for-profit transportation is impractical, immoral, or im-whatever, I’d like to hear from you too. Help me make sure I’ve addressed any and all potential downsides.