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Back to the future of transportation with Aaron Gordon: podcast and transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with transportation reporter Aaron Gordon about why the New York City transit system is so awful — and what it'll take to fix it.

*We have a new live show on the calendar! Listen for details.*

If you care about battling climate change, then you might want to pay attention to the New York City subway system. We know there’s an urgent need to cut our carbon emissions and a big part of that is going to be transportation. We need to radically reimagine the way we get around in the coming years because we cannot continue to have an economy and a commute system that revolves around cars, particularly cars that are dependent on fossil fuels.

In that way, the NYC subway system is a marvel — it’s a massive and democratic public good that nearly everyone relies on. It’s also in the midst of a slow motion crisis after decades of neglect and technological stasis. So if we want to make the subway a vision for the country, then the country needs to learn from the missteps of the New York subway — and transportation reporter Aaron Gordon has some ideas on where to start.

CHRIS HAYES: A realization I came to recently is that the New York City subway, in the past 20 to 30 years, has changed from being the best subway system in America to the worst big-city subway system in the world. Almost nothing in that change is about anything the subway is doing different. It's mostly a problem of stasis. It's mostly a problem of them not changing as every other system gets better.

CHRIS HAYES: Hello, and welcome to "Why Is This Happening," with me, your host, Chris Hayes. It is a very, very, very, very exciting day here in WITHpod land because we have an announcement, an announcement. So we've talked to you about live WITHpods, how much we enjoy doing them. We have done one with Ta-Nehisi Coates here in New York City. We asked you guys if you were interested in more. You said yes. We want to ... I'm saying this now before I get to the announcement. We want to make this a thing that we do. And we want to make it a thing that we do out around the country, traveling around and going out. I promise you that is our goal.

We are trying to get this well-oiled and streamlined before we take it on the road. So this live "Why Is This Happening?" is also happening in New York City, Sunday, Feb. 24 at 6 p.m. at the Gramercy Theater in New York. My guest is going to be Stacey Abrams. Stacey Abrams, of course, is the Georgia State legislator who ran for governor in 2018, put together an incredible coalition and campaign, came within about 50,000 votes of defeating Secretary of State Brian Kemp. It was a very contested election. There were a lot of issues on voting restrictions, voter ID, polling locations, registration.

But Stacey Abrams is also someone who has been thinking ... She's a really remarkable person because she has been thinking about the politics of multiracial coalitions in America and the deep south for years, and then has put that thinking into practice in the race she ran.

So she is a theoretician of American politics at this particular multiracial moment, and a practitioner of American politics at this multiracial moment. And I'm really excited to get a chance to talk with her honestly and openly about her career, about that campaign, and about this moment in Trump's America and what it means.

So Stacey Abrams will be my guest. She's really excited. I'm really excited. It's going to be Sunday, Feb. 24, 6:00 p.m., the Gramercy Theater in New York. We will release it as a podcast. And the pre-sale for tickets starts 10:00 a.m. tomorrow, if you're listening to this on Tuesday. So Wednesday, Jan. 30 until 10:00 p.m. Thursday night, you can go to, search Chris Hayes, and then use special code WITHpod. All one word. You've got to wait until Wednesday, Jan. 30 to do that. And then tickets will stay on sale after the pre-sale. You won't need a code. But all that's probably going to sell out super fast.

What we're trying to do is tell folks here in your ears, right now, from my voice in the microphone, because you're listening to this, to go do that so you can come be a part of it. All right. We will have updates on that. I'll probably be hammering that. We'll talk about it on the television show as well.

Today, we have a great guest. And today's a little bit of an experiment. I like doing experiments. I like trying new things. One of the reasons I love doing this podcast, and I love all of you for listening to it, is that we get to try new things.

So I'm trying something today, and I think it works. I think it works, and I hope it works. And here's what I'm trying. The topic of today's conversation is something I am incredibly interested and invested in, something I'm obsessed with, something I almost, at one point, wrote a book about years ago, and it didn't quite come to fruition. But it is something that is specific and geographical. It is the New York City subway system.

The New York City subway system is, to me, a civilizational marvel. It's like our version of the pyramids. It's just incredible that the thing exists. It exists and it works and it's massive, and it runs 24 hours, and it can get you to so many different places in such short periods of time. And it's a public good. And it's this incredibly democratic public good, because everybody from Wall Street bankers to the working poor to folks that have nowhere else to go ride the subway, go on the subway.

That's not to say there are not inequities embedded in it. There definitely are in terms of which areas get service and which don't, in terms of the way that fare beating is policed and things like that. But, at its best, it's one of the most beautiful pieces of public infrastructure I have ever encountered. It's open, democratic, equitable. It embodies the vision of a kind of society that I want to have, one where anyone can use this public good to enrich their lives or to get to their job or to drop their kids off.

And the reason that I had a question about whether we're going to do it or not is right now, if you're listening to this, you're like, "I don't live in New York City, dude. That's awesome that you like taking your subway, but I don't care."

I get that but, here's the thing. There's two reasons why you should care about the New York City subway system, even if you don't live in New York City. One is climate change. So we are going to have to radically reimagine the way that we get around in the coming years. We cannot continue to have an economy and a commute system and a life world that revolves around cars, and particularly revolves around cars that depend on fossil fuel. We are going to have to create new means of mass transit, public transportation and mobility that are, hopefully, going to be much more equitable, much more democratic and, also, way, way, way, way, way lower in carbon emissions.

So the subway is the future at some level. We are going to have to move away from a system of getting around that was kind of frozen in amber in the 1950s around the mass production of U.S. cars, the building of the interstate highway system and the development of suburbs, that we have now inherited 70 years later. That moment, it's like if everybody was wearing what they wore in Mad Men, and every kitchen was painted lime green, and every house had carpeting. If that, but on the societal scale. It's just like one little moment in time, with one kind of technology that was just the thing at that moment, that we have just now had as the defining feature of American physical existence for the majority of people for 70 years, because the things got built at that time with that technology.

We have to change that. We are going to have to massively reduce carbon emissions. In fact, the IPCC report says we have to cut them in half in 12 years. A big part of that is going to be transportation. So that's one reason that the subway — and the fate of the New York City subway — and how it works and how it doesn't work are really important to think about.

The other is the provisioning of universal public goods, because I think there's a lot of ways in which the policies of the last 30 or 40 years, what people call neoliberalism or use other names, has really shied away from things like building out a subway system or single-parent healthcare or free college or big public parks, big public projects. It's been a lot of public private partnerships. It's been a lot of targeted tax cuts. And I think we're in a moment where people are moving away from that vision of social policy towards a vision of creating universal public goods that ground all of us in equity and solidarity, that we all use together, and that we all pay for together. And that's a vision of a society that I think is increasingly going to be the future. I hope is going to be the future.

But as we've talked about before, as we talked about in our "Medicare For All" podcast with Abdul El-Sayed, the thing about those sorts of public goods is it really matters. The devil really is in the details. It really matters how good you are at delivering them.

And the New York City subway system has gone through a really bad phase in which it's gotten slower. It's broken down more. You may have read about this, because so many journalists work in New York that were kind of obsessed with it and write about it a lot. But what we have seen is this incredible system start to break down.

And there are these really important, broadly applicable lessons in how the subway has broken down for all kinds of things, like how a healthcare system might break down, how a park system might break down, how a university, a public university system might break down, right? These are all kinds of public goods that are managed by civil servants, by bureaucrats, by governments that we want to be high quality. And when their quality starts to go down you have to start asking hard questions about what has happened to them.

That's what happened to the New York City subway system. It has gone through a slow-motion crisis. And my guest today knows about as much about this as anyone who does not work for the actual MTA, which is the agency that runs the subway. His name is Aaron Gordon. He's a New York transportation reporter who, as you'll hear in the conversation, backed his way into this. He was reporting on other stuff and has this newsletter called "Signal Problems" that is the best digest on subway news that you can read. And it gets way into the weeds.

And I will say one more thing before I go to Aaron. We recorded this before this big thing happened in New York, which had to do with the closing of a line called the L, which the governor then reversed. And now they're not going to close it. Anyway, it's very big news in the world of subway nerds. It's big news in North Brooklyn and in New York City. It doesn't really matter to anyone else. I just want to mark that happened after the conversation. And in some ways it's good it happened after the conversation, because if it happened before the conversation, Aaron and I would have spent a lot of times in an incredibly weeds-y conversation about a single line in North Brooklyn that you really don't care about unless you're a very small segment of population.

But, more broadly, the story that Aaron tells here about a system that is functioning well starts to break down, has tremendous implications for all kinds of systems throughout our lives, the systems we want to build in the future, particularly in the era of climate change. And so understanding what's happened to the New York City subway system, I think, is crucial to understanding how we prevent systems like that from breaking down in the future.

By the looks of you, I'm about 35 years older than you. And I come from the era of the internet where, of the blog era. I don't know if you're familiar with that era.

Image: Riders On The New York City Subway
Commuters ride on a crowded downtown subway in New York City on October 16, 2018.Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images file

AARON GORDON: I am very familiar with the blog era.

CHRIS HAYES: Because the thing that was cool about the blog era is people would just start writing on a thing. And they didn't have any specific fancy credential. They didn't have any institutional affiliation. But they were just really smart and knowledgeable. And you would just discover this person. And it was an amazing ecosystem that has basically gone away. But that's kind of how I feel about "Signal Problems."

AARON GORDON: That's an interesting comparison.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, just because it's really good and so smart and so knowledgeable. I was like, "Who the hell is this dude?" Who are you?

AARON GORDON: Yeah, that's what the MTA wanted to know, too, when I started writing about it.

CHRIS HAYES: I'm sure. They were like, "What's up with this newsletter?"

AARON GORDON: I was a sports reporter until 18 months ago, when I got laid off from Vice. We had a small sports team there, about 12 people. And I feel like, at one point, the people at Vice looked around and go, "Why the hell do we have a sports department?" and, you know, got rid of us.

CHRIS HAYES: They pivoted to video.

AARON GORDON: Yeah, they were already ... They pivoted video 10 years ago, but they were like, "We need to pivot harder to video." So yeah, I got laid off. And I was trying to figure out what to do next. I wasn't doing game stories or anything like that. I was always interested in more significant issues—not to belittle the sportswriters out there. But I did like investigating anti-doping stuff around the Russian scandal. And, before that, it was about corruption and mega events. Like I covered the Rio Olympics and stuff.

When I was down in Rio, I did a story on how they created a new bus rapid transit route for the games. They just cut right through neighborhoods for it and didn't give a shit about who they were, what houses they were displacing, or what they were doing in the neighborhoods, because they had to build a link from the games ... Which, by the way, the games were basically in the Rio equivalent of Long Island. They weren't where the main Olympic park was. So they basically had to build a bus route to go from there to the airport. And so they were just like, "Well, we have to do it." And they spent like a billion dollars on that route or whatever.

CHRIS HAYES: On the route?

AARON GORDON: On the bus rapid transit route. It was like a 25, 30-mile route. It was a lot of money. But at the same time, I took that bus and I was like, "This bus is fantastic." And I was like-

CHRIS HAYES: Sorry, people's homes who got knocked out of the way.

AARON GORDON: Yeah, so I did this story on that. But then when I went to go visit the neighborhood, and I went to talk to a guy who lived there. And at the end he was like, "Okay, I'm going to drop you off at the bus station." And I was like, "Oh, I can walk there. It's not far." And he's like, "No. You can't walk there." He just looks at me and is like, "You can't walk there." So he drops me off. And I was like, "Oh, thank you for the ride." Then he goes, "No, no, I'm walking you into the bus station." I was like, "All right, fine." So he walks me in. He goes, "I'm sorry. The bus isn't coming for four more minutes." I was like, "That's all right. I can wait."

And so the bus came. And, by the way, it's like a modern station, like it looks like a light rail transit, because they do bus rapid transit right in South America. I get on the bus. And it just stops like six times over thirty miles, a little bit more than that. But it was like super fast, super efficient, dedicated roadway. And then I come back to New York and I'm like, "That's what corruption looks like?"

CHRIS HAYES: Right, that's the Brazilian government in the midst of a corrupt free-for-all around an Olympics.

AARON GORDON: And the BRT routes were part of this massive ... I mean, everything was part of that massive corruption scheme. But the Olympics and these BRT routes were these bus companies were very much a part of this corruption scheme.

CHRIS HAYES: Bus Rapid Transit, when you say BRT.

AARON GORDON: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: So you just remember…

AARON GORDON: I got to drop the jargon.

CHRIS HAYES: You are like a super transit nerd, which are great people. I love them. But just, you know, I'll interject occasionally. So those Bus Rapid Transit lines, was this part of what got your interest going?

AARON GORDON: Well, yeah. So this was 2016. I still had a job then in sports. And then when I got laid off I thought, you know, it bothered me ever since I came back from that trip and some other international trips I had done for reporting and just for pleasure just how much New York and America in general was not just falling behind on transit stuff, but not even doing the bare minimum to keep up with best practices around the world.

I'm not talking we're not building new subway lines, although it is a problem. But we're letting our bus system just completely deteriorate for no reason whatsoever, other than political stasis. And all this stuff just started to bother me. And so, yeah, when I, basically, was looking for a new beat, I was like, "What the hell? I'll just do this then."

CHRIS HAYES: So you just started writing about public transit in New York City?

AARON GORDON: Pretty much. So I happened to know the editor at the Village Voice, which I can really pick the media companies I work for.

CHRIS HAYES: Fucking kiss of death.

AARON GORDON: Yeah, I pretty much am. So don't hire me if you’re out there at an iffy place.

CHRIS HAYES: The Vox editors are listening. Do not pull the trigger on your Gordon hire.

AARON GORDON: Yeah, but the Village Voice had just lost their transit reporter, who moved to San Diego, which I now understand to be a very attractive proposition when reporting on the subways for long enough. But he had moved. So they were looking for a new subway reporter. And I was just like, "Can I just write some stuff?" And they were like, "Sure." One thing led to another, I'm still here.

CHRIS HAYES: I am obsessed with this topic.

AARON GORDON: Excellent.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, I'm obsessed with this topic. Your newsletter's amazing. I've learned so much from it. I'm obsessed with it because I take the train every day. And it's just ... I'm an insane person around impatience, and it just drives me absolutely crazy when the train's not running. And it's gotten so bad recently. And it makes me so white-hot impotent with rage.


CHRIS HAYES: It's not my best look. It's not me at my best, like, stewing on a train that's stopped, and then having to stop myself from tweeting at the governor. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don't.

So there's that. There's just like the first person. Then there's the fact that I think public transit is actually ... It's the central way that makes New York City function and makes urban environments function. To make them work at the scale that we want, you need to have public transportation, both as a matter of equity, so that people are free to have movement, even if they can't afford a car, which is lots of people, lots of people. And, also, emissions, right, to make cities work at the scale that we want them to work in the new environment we're going into.

And then the third level of most abstractions. It's like, it's a kind of central public good, a central universal public good of the kind that my idealized vision of a just society would have more of. But the fact that the one we have here I both love and hate because it's so fucked up so often, makes me want to think hard about how to make it awesome, because I think about Medicare for All system or a public broadband that was like the subway. And, at one level that would be awesome and better than improvement on the status quo, but also it's so frustrating.

AARON GORDON: Yeah, and I think what a lot of New Yorkers feel like when they take the subway ... It feels so easy to just make it better. And this is something that I experience a lot when I'm talking to people who maybe don't know the system as well others because it's just like not their place in life to know everything about the subway, just totally fine. But it's just like, "Oh, why isn't there a train right behind this one?" Or, you know, "Why do the countdown clocks not work well?" and all this little stuff like that.

You know, it's very easy to imagine a mass transit system that works really well. And one of the things that makes the New York subway especially so vexing is that it wasn't designed originally to be one system. So there are lots barriers that pre-date the last 20, 30 years. Forget that. It's back to the first 30 years they were building it as three separate systems that then got merged together.

CHRIS HAYES: So it's three separate systems that got built by private enterprise as private lines.

AARON GORDON: Which was really common. That's pretty much how public transit worked in the early 20th century. But, yeah, private companies.

CHRIS HAYES: These private companies build them, and then they get taken over right around World War II, right? They become public, I think.

AARON GORDON: Yeah, it was LaGuardia who brought them under the city. Yeah, so '30s.

CHRIS HAYES: So during the '30s, LaGuardia brings them under the city to become public. In terms of like the scope of the system, right, it's one of the great systems in the world, but not the best. And it's not the biggest, right? There are other bigger systems than the New York City subway system.

AARON GORDON: Yeah, I mean, it depends how you measure size. But in terms of number of stations, it has the most stations of any transit system or of any subway in a metro. I'll just probably say subway even when I'm referring to metros. But, yeah, it has the most stations but not the most track mileage. And just all this other-

CHRIS HAYES: But it's the biggest one that runs 24 hours, which is key.

AARON GORDON: Yeah, well, most don't run 24 hours.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, it's a rare thing.


CHRIS HAYES: It's a cool thing about the subway.

AARON GORDON: Yeah, it's a very cool thing.

CHRIS HAYES: 3 a.m. on a subway is always an experience. It's a-

AARON GORDON: Greatest show on earth.

CHRIS HAYES: You're going to learn some things.

AARON GORDON: I swear, every New Yorker grows up a little bit no matter how old they are.

CHRIS HAYES: That's right.

AARON GORDON: You can be 70 years old and do a lot of growing up in the subway at 3 a.m.

CHRIS HAYES: You get on a car and you're like, "Oh, awesome, it's empty. Oh, no, it's too empty." That's the worst. The worst is when you're like the roller coaster of delight and then dismay when you see a subway car that's super empty and then realize it's empty for a reason.

AARON GORDON: Everyone learns that the hard way the first time. And nobody ever learns it for the second time.

CHRIS HAYES: So the system, back in the 1970s or 1980s, when the city went bankrupt, the system got really bad, so that's like the iconic low point of the subway. So on-time statistics were terrible. It was broken all the time, fare beaters jumping the turnstiles, the spray paint iconically all over the subways. My dad would come home ... I remember this as clear as day. I was like four or five-years-old. We lived in the Bronx. He worked in an office for a housing nonprofit in Wall Street and took the 4 line all the way up to Norwood.


CHRIS HAYES: And he would come in the door, I remember this ... He would come in the door just like he looked like someone dumped a bucket of water on him because it was pre-air conditioning in the subway and so on a summer day the door would open and he'd be standing there like hair wet like he got out of the shower, shirt matted to him like see-through from the hour and 20 minutes he'd sat on the un-air conditioned train. Like that was the low point and then what happened to make it better?

AARON GORDON: Part of what happened was the city just got a little bit better, like a lot of what was going on in the city got addressed. The crime in the subway got addressed mostly through really intelligent policing using not even ... I don't want to say like advanced statistical analysis, they just took a closer look at where the crimes were occurring and basically figured out that a lot of the crimes were being done by the same people just moving throughout the system and that if they just targeted in an intelligent way like where those people started their crime sprees, they could reduce crime significantly by just arresting them before they committed dozens of crimes in a day.

That was their really key driver to reducing crime but then in terms of repairing the system itself, that really was a crisis of under maintenance and underinvestment. The cars were super old. They were breaking down about every 8,000 miles, which to compare that to today's crisis, the cars break down about 117,000 miles.


AARON GORDON: There were 20 derailments in 1983. There was one minor derailment in a yard this year, so like 20 is an absolute ... Like you're not supposed to have any derailments. That's a pretty like core tenant of rail systems.

CHRIS HAYES: In the 'you had one job' category.

AARON GORDON: Yeah, like-

CHRIS HAYES: Keep the train on the rails.

AARON GORDON: Yeah, keep the train on the tracks. That happened 20 times in one year.

CHRIS HAYES: Jesus Christ.

AARON GORDON: And it happened I think 13 times the year before or 16 times, so it wasn't an aberration that one year.


AARON GORDON: What happened was they got an MTA Chairman/CEO named Richard Ravitch, who was an excellent administrator and politician essentially and he recognized that they needed lots of money and he needed to convince people to give him money for it. He got together business leaders ... This was back when New York had a lot of very prominent headquarters here, and unlike the headquarters in New York today, the CEOs and Chairmen who ran those companies tended to actually live and stay in New York so they felt kind of more invested, I think, in rebuilding the subway, so their work force commuted by the subway and all that stuff.

He organized business leaders who organized politicians and then created what was called the Capital Program, which was a five year plan that's funded primarily by the state of New York to basically come up with a list. Here are all the things we're going to fix, here are all the things we're going to buy over the next five years or whatever. First one was, I think, about $5 billion, which back then was a huge amount of money for the subway.


AARON GORDON: And that did go a long way to fix it because they actually got money to start fixing things. You know, they did lots of little things too, like accelerating maintenance schedules and all that kind of boring stuff, but it worked. By the 19 ... I would say late '90s and that's how long it takes to rebuild a system that's struggling as much as it did. It took a long time but by the late '90s, the subway was doing much, much better.

CHRIS HAYES: And is that mostly just like so ... I mean, the obvious thing is that the graffiti goes away is one thing.

AARON GORDON: Mm-hmm. That was one of the first things they targeted.


AARON GORDON: It was like a really big ... They were going to tackle graffiti as a symbol to the rest of New Yorkers that like see, we're cleaning up the graffiti and we're going to stop the derailments too, you know, type of deal.

CHRIS HAYES: The order of that is hilarious.

AARON GORDON: Well, one's easier than the other.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, I guess so. Right. So there's a bunch of capital investment that happens, $5 billion, is that like get a bunch of new like fancier computer software and new cars? What does that mean?

AARON GORDON: It's a very different answer in the '80s than it is today. In the '80s, the cars, the actual subway cars, were a big problem. Broken rails were a really big problem.

CHRIS HAYES: Those are pretty straightforward fixes.

AARON GORDON: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: It's like get new cars. Fix the rails.

AARON GORDON: Right, and there was ... It was a lot of stuff like very basic stuff. Today, the Capital Program, the last one was $30 billion. I don't know exactly how that adjusts for inflation off the top of my head but it's more than $5 billion would be today. Now the Capital Program tends to be a lot more towards technology, which is good and for obvious reasons that's necessary, but the problems with the subway today are not so much about broken cars and broken rails. Although that's what the MTA tried to say at first, I think upon reflection it's pretty clear that wasn't the problem. Now it's a management and it's a culture problem with some technological problems too, but it's a lot more about now the thing that's broken is the bureaucracy and that's a much trickier thing to fix.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, so let's talk about the breaking, because again, I want to sort of reset the stakes here because if you're sitting right now in Iowa City, Iowa driving to your job and listening to WITHpod about, as we whined about like the F train, you're thinking like I'm not quite sure what this has to do with me. The administrative problem that the MTA faces is not that different from like what the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services are or the National Health Service in the UK, which is like fully socialized medicine or administering the nation's nuclear program in the Department of Energy. Like these are big complicated bureaucratic tasks in a big complicated system that you want to produce a high level of quality and service and the bureaucratic question on how you make that happen, like the devil being in the details there matters a tremendous amount to whether you have something that's successful or not.

AARON GORDON: It's all in the details and I think that's what makes it a very universal kind of case study because the one thing every single New Yorkers can agree on, whether they take the subway to work or not is that we desperately, desperately need it, and that the city will not work without it.

CHRIS HAYES: It would literally be like if you just shut the veins down in your body.


CHRIS HAYES: You can't do it, like nothing works in New York City work.

AARON GORDON: It always get compared to the circulatory system. Politicians are always, "the life blood." And it's true.

CHRIS HAYES: Thank you for hanging a lantern on my use of a cliché there.

AARON GORDON: No, but it's because it's so-

CHRIS HAYES: It's like the circulatory system. You're like every single dumbass says it's like the circulatory system. It's one of the most tried things you can say but continue.

AARON GORDON: But it is like the circulatory system. It's one of those tried cliches that everyone repeats just because it's so obvious. So you're kind of past that political conversation that so often plagues our dialogue right now about whether or not something should happen, whether or not something should be funded, should be provided. That whole part of the conversation gets leapfrogged and instead we get to have a question about what it looks like and the ways in which the conversation breaks down at that point is really illustrative about how I think a lot of other systems ... Or not systems but bureaucracies, whether it comes to like healthcare or other infrastructure elsewhere in the country, it all ends up circling back to well, if we can't do it right then how do we do it?


AARON GORDON: And then that gets away from the conversation of no, we really do need this. Let's refocus.

CHRIS HAYES: Let's get back to making it right.

AARON GORDON: Yeah, yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, that segues to like why did it start to get so bad because what happened in New York, and this is interesting too because I think this happens in a lot of situations. You get anecdotal evidence, people being like "Am I going crazy or does the subway suck? Like what is going on? Am I losing my mind or have I been on three stalled subways this week?” At first, the MTA was like you're losing your mind, right?


CHRIS HAYES: Like the MTA just like gaslit the whole city.

AARON GORDON: There was a really interesting progression of events and a lot of this predates me reporting on the subject so a lot of this I experienced as a just normal rider. First, they came up with this explanation of why delays were skyrocketing starting about eight years ago. They were like, "Oh, it's because of supplement schedules" and everyone was like, "Well, what's supplement schedules?" They were like, "Well, when we do planned work we have to issue new subway schedules because if like that part of the track is not accessible and trains have to reroute, we have to do new schedules."


AARON GORDON: It was like okay, so you're doing more planned work? They were like exactly, we're doing more planned work.

CHRIS HAYES: They're like, "That's it. Working hard to make your life better but because we're doing all this planned work, see, that's why you're being delayed."

AARON GORDON: But then people pushed back and said "Well that doesn't make sense because there are tons of delays when you're not doing any planned work." They were like, "You're right. We're going to stop blaming supplement schedules. You know what it is? It's overcrowding. There are too many people ... Have you ever been to Grand Central during rush hour? Like it takes forever for people to board the train and then get off ... And that's a delay. There's your delay."

CHRIS HAYES: So this was like phase two. First it was like, "We're doing so much work; it's delaying things." Phase two was like, "It's your fault, riders, because you're riding too ... There's too many of you basically. Like the system was over capacity."

Image: NYC subway
Packed subway train in New York City on April 1, 2016.Andia / UIG via Getty Images file

AARON GORDON: Right and a lot of people bought it. A lot of people believed it.

CHRIS HAYES: The New York Times ran a whole article based on that premise.

AARON GORDON: They did. There are a couple of problems with the overcrowding thing. One is have you ever heard a businessman complain that he has too many customers? I haven't and you know, just on like a very basic fundamental level, now they're complaining that ridership is down and they have to fix that so obviously that's ... You either have too many customers or too little; there's never a Goldilocks thing.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, the Goldilocks, the perfectly warmed porridge.

AARON GORDON: But then the other more fundamental problem is that that excuse doesn't really hold water if you're not running the trains as well as you used to be and as it turns out, that's exactly what's been going on. I think the big revelation, at least for me reporting on this subject, has been that operationally the subway is just running slower than it used to be and this is not an accident. This was a purposeful decision that New York City Transit Authority made in the 1990s to ... Like they literally sat there and said we need to slow the trains down for safety. In the 1990s, there was a kernel of truth to that because there were high profile accidents and crashes. Most notably, the Union Square one in 1991 and a J train rear ending a M train on the Williamsburg Bridge in 1995.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, I remember that one. I lived in the city back then.

AARON GORDON: It was a really bad one.

CHRIS HAYES: Think about that. This is a train running into another train when they're on a bridge. There's already a weird uncanny feeling when you're in a train on a bridge because it feels like trains shouldn't go on this bridge. It always feels like a little wrong, but like imagine the feeling of being in that train on a bridge like overlooking the skyline and the water when you get-

AARON GORDON: Only one person died and it was the motorman. After that point, there was a National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the crash and they found lots of problems. They found that the train couldn't brake, you know like once the emergency brakes were applied, it didn't have the proper braking distance. By the way, the NTSB reported that the main problem with that crash was the motorman fell asleep probably and then the 1991 Union Square crash the motorman was drunk. Here are two crashes where these are human error problems, but New York City Transit's takeaway from them was essentially if we don't have enough braking distance, we have to slow all the trains down because we don't have time to change the braking systems of all these cabs before potentially something else goes wrong.


AARON GORDON: In order to slow the trains down they installed what's called signal timers and basically ... I'm trying to think of how to explain this as non jargon-y as possible.

CHRIS HAYES: I'm curious to see if you can do it.


CHRIS HAYES: I'm just going to cut it if you fail so take a shot.

AARON GORDON: Alright, good. If you're on a road, you know there are traffic lights and the subway has traffic lights too, but in the New York City subway the traffic lights work differently. Instead of telling you just when to go, when to stop, they tell you if there's a train in the block in front of you, right?


AARON GORDON: So they'll only give you a green light if there's no car in the block in front of you.


AARON GORDON: Now obviously, just like on a road, that means there's a lot of space between the cars.


AARON GORDON: But they do that for extra safety to make sure because trains can't brake as quickly as cars so you need that space.

CHRIS HAYES: But what the signal system is doing is it's timing out the sort of ... Kind of pulse of the trains passing through the system and it's ensuring a certain minimum distance between trains.

AARON GORDON: Right, so that's how the signal system works but what they did with signal timers was they added a speed element on top of it so that it just clocks you when the driver, when it goes from one point to the next, and if it knows you're going too fast it will automatically apply the emergency brake, and this was to stop human error. On the surface that sounds like a really good idea, so they installed lots of these. What they never really considered was instituting a program to make sure that these signal timers kept working properly.

Starting in the 1990s, they started to install them and then by 2015 or 2016, they installed over 2,000 of them around the system, a lot of them in places that you could argue there shouldn't be any signal timers. There's a perfectly safe set of track where you can see far in advance, there's no grade, but more to the point, they didn't maintain them to make sure they worked.

Imagine if there's a speed limit on a road. It says 25 miles an hour, and there's a speed camera set up and the speed camera stops working properly and now it starts giving people tickets at 18 miles an hour.


AARON GORDON: That's basically what's happening in the subway system right now.

CHRIS HAYES: So there's 2,000 of these, they're put in, they start to degrade in quality, they aren't maintained and they start basically lowering the speed way below even the safety threshold.

AARON GORDON: Right and then there's one other element on top of this that makes the problem even worse, which is… so train operators get heavily penalized if they trip a signal for going too fast, for good reason, you don't want train operators going too fast. It's dangerous.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, it seems like a smart plan.

AARON GORDON: Yeah, so basically this is an oversimplification but it's more or less a three strikes you're out deal. If you trip a signal three times, they're going to look to get you out of the job. If your entire career is riding on not tripping these signals, you're going to make sure you don't trip these signals. Now you trip a signal once or you hear about someone who trips a signal once and they swear to you they were not going above the speed limit.


AARON GORDON: How are you going to react to that problem? Well, you're going to make sure you go much slower, right? Because all you know is that a bunch of the signal timers in the system don't work well but you don't know which one it is.

CHRIS HAYES: And you might be screwed because you're going to get a ticket which is like a third of your way to losing your livelihood if it's nailing you at say 18 miles an hour as opposed to 25.


CHRIS HAYES: And you don't know where the bad ones are. You just know that you have friends who have been screwed by it.

AARON GORDON: Sure, and rumors spread, you know.


AARON GORDON: Maybe they know where one of the broken ones is, but maybe they don't and so there's a lot of institutional knowledge in the subway, right? In New York City Transit and one of the things there was a lot of institutional knowledge about was where those broken signal timers were. Then when the 2008 recession hit, there were a lot of cutbacks and a lot of people put in their retirement papers. There was a tremendous turnover.


AARON GORDON: Not just among motormen but also in what's called dispatchers, and dispatching is a really, really intricate skill because a lot of it is still managed by one person who just really knows the system super well. They manage the switches and they make sure that trains end up on the proper tracks and that the track switches get executed quickly so trains can move through switches quickly. It's a really intricate dance. There was a huge, huge turnover after these kind of like not forced retirements but a lot of people basically said, "Yeah, please put in your retirement papers" because it was clear that they needed to cut costs. There was all this institutional knowledge lost and now you have a bunch of super, super cautious dispatchers, motormen. They can't run the system as well as it used to be run.

The ultimate example of this, during the 2000 World Series, subway series, right? It was between the Yankees and the Mets. Shea Stadium is on the 7 line. Lots of people take the subway to get to Shea Stadium. They ramped up service a little bit but not much and they were able to run about 33 trains per hour on the 7 line, which is a lot of trains.

CHRIS HAYES: 33 an hour?

AARON GORDON: 33 an hour, for like a brief period during the game.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, but that's a lot.

AARON GORDON: Yeah, yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: I mean, there's only 60 minutes in an hour for folks that are doing the math in their head.

AARON GORDON: And they were able to do this because they had super qualified motormen who knew those signals so well that they barely even needed to look at the lights as they were approaching it because they knew it just ... Like they knew by feel.

CHRIS HAYES: I love this. I'm picturing in my head like the "Ocean's Eleven" montage where they like lay like ... Like the MTA person comes around to like pick out who are going to be the people driving the trains during the subway series.


CHRIS HAYES: Like who's like the top quality ... Like has the best feel, like we need our best people on the job to drive these trains during the subway.

AARON GORDON: I mean, this was what it was before computerized signaling, like driving train really was a skill. It was about how well you knew the track, it was about how well you knew the equipment, it was about how good of a feel you had for the speed you were going, and you know, just all that stuff.


AARON GORDON: They were able to achieve 33 trains per hour. Now the 7 line just got upgraded to computerized signaling. They're working on the roll out now. It's called CBTC. It's like what the basis for this plan to fix the subway is and once they get it figured out they will be able to run 29 trains per hour on the 7 line.


AARON GORDON: You know, that's a bit of an oversimplification because they'll be able to do it so much more safely and so much more efficiently than they could for that brief period during the subway series, but it's an illustration of how much of the-

CHRIS HAYES: How human it is. Like how like the old system was a human system or a system that sort of combined human and machine aspects and that losses of certain human institutional knowledge, behavioral norms and all that stuff is part of what slowed the system down.

AARON GORDON: Yeah, but the MTA, this is like a point I think I really need to make, it is the worst corporate merger in the history of mankind. The MTA was created in 1968 to merge the Bridges and Tunnels Authority, which Robert Moses famously ran, and the New York City subway system, the Long Island Railroad, what ended up becoming Metro North Railroad — which runs up to Connecticut and upstate New York — and various bus systems. The whole idea of merging it was that you used bridges and tunnels surplus to pay for the fact that the subway and buses within the city can't pay for themselves.

It was a good plan on paper and the MTA was supposed to be a self-sustaining authority, like self-sustaining, no tax revenue. Then when the subways fell apart in the '70s and '80s, they realized that wasn't possible. They needed more money and so all these taxes were created to pay for the subway. The problem with that is the MTA is supposed to be an apolitical, a non-political thing, to run itself but now all of a sudden it's funded largely with tax revenue and I think what we're realizing now is how unsustainable that is.

You can't both say something is an independent authority and give it like the auspices of an independent structure while also funding it primarily with tax dollars.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, and particularly when it's all essentially run by the state. It's run by the state even though it makes the city go.

AARON GORDON: Right, and this is another legacy of being created in the '60s when the state was much more fiscally healthy than the city was.


AARON GORDON: Now it's also the exact opposite, where the suburbs, you know you look at a lot of these like Long Island towns that are in fiscal trouble because their property tax values are going down or property tax revenues I should say, and meanwhile the city is healthier than it's ever been. You almost have this complete reversal while still adhering to the structure that was created for when the state was so much healthier.

CHRIS HAYES: What you're describing is sort of this bureaucratic problem is I guess, did it make it safer? Because I mean like what I'm hearing you say is like these wimps, man. Back in the old days, you know, you get out there, you just feel the pull of the open road. You just really gun that 7 train. It's like, okay yeah, cool, but um, we should make sure we don't hit anyone.


CHRIS HAYES: Did the system get safer? Did all of the things they put in — which it sounds to me were motivated not out of anything other than a real desire to make the system safer—did that work and is that worthwhile trade of?

AARON GORDON: The safest subway system in the world is one where all the cars have square wheels. So yes, it made the system safer. And that was an important goal at first. But the way that a 70,000 person bureaucracy works is that once you set something in motion, it tends not to stop. And-

CHRIS HAYES: Like a runaway train, you might even say.

AARON GORDON: Yeah, exactly, pretty much. Like it, a lot of the problems ... I keep finding out ... are remnants of decisions that were made in the '90s or early 2000s.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, and sort of amplified and accrued over time.

AARON GORDON: Someone makes a decision, a policy gets started, or put in place, and nobody ever revisits it. And then it just becomes the way things are. The way things are done. And the person who created the policy is no longer around to say, "You know, this was to accomplish safety goals. We're a much safer system, time to revisit it, or whatever."

They're not around anymore to say that, and so, all the new people, it's just the way things are done. They don't want to rock the boat. And certainly when it comes to safety issues, this is something we saw especially in the subway, in the early 2010s, I would say. Liability was the primary concern, that was pretty much all anyone cared about, was minimizing liability. So when it came to maybe revisiting some safety protocols that were outdated, nobody wanted that on their heads.

Image: Andy Byford
Andy Byford, president and chief executive officer of the New York City Transit Authority, listens during the Bloomberg Year Ahead Summit in New York on Nov. 28, 2018.Victor J. Blue / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

And that's something that's changing now under the new, New York City Transit President, Andy Byford, who is willing to stick his neck out and say, you know, I think we can roll this back and still be a safe system.

CHRIS HAYES: One of the things that I think is so interesting about this is that you felt like there was a crisis point, I think in the past summer, particularly, or is it-

AARON GORDON: It was like, the summer of 2017.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, it was 2017, the summer where it felt like there was a crisis point, there was lot of coverage. And what you're saying was, was there was no specific breaking point, it was like the accrual of a bunch of stuff that collected. Like the Hemingway quote, about going broke, like slowly and then all at once, that the sort of system went like, slowly and then all at once kind of broke down. And there's data to back that up, right? Like, it's a much worse performing system right now.

AARON GORDON: The way you described it is absolutely correct. Delays just steadily mounted, in a pretty linear fashion, for six to eight years. And then, it reached about 70,000 delays a month, which, yeah. That's a lot. It's like one in out of every six trains was delayed at the height of the subway crisis.

But it wasn't so much the steady erosion that kind of got the headlines, what got the headlines was the person banging on the F train door, as they were rolling into the station after being stuck in the tunnel for 45 minutes.

CHRIS HAYES: That, by the way, if you're listening to this right now, you can look up the video of this. It's like a zombie train, that gets stuck ... it's a summer train-

AARON GORDON: Yeah. So the windows are all fogged up, because there was so much heat in there from body heat that the windows got all fogged up, and the train's rolling in. And you just see this hand print come against the wall, like some chimpanzee had been let loose inside and eaten everybody and there was like one survivor, who, you know.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, like it's a crazy scene, and it looks apocalyptic. And that got a lot of people's attention.

AARON GORDON: Yeah, and so, that. And then, an A train did derail—this was like the one derailment in 2017 that got a lot of attention. But if you look at the data, it's hard to see what made the summer of 2017 that much worse than the summer of 2016.


AARON GORDON: Or the winter of 2017.

CHRIS HAYES: I think part of it too, though, was people coming to not feel like they were crazy. I think part of it was the reporting was showing the data was supporting what people had started to feel for a while, and that allowed people to say, like, I'm not crazy, this is driving me nuts, that I have this problem.

AARON GORDON: Yeah, it was a classic frog in the pot of water situation. Where all of a sudden, it started boiling, and everyone was, yeah, it has gotten hotter in here.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, right. So, now you've got Andy Byford there, and I think what's interesting now is, Byford comes from London, right?

AARON GORDON: Or, he came from Toronto ... he's British, he worked in Sydney, and then ... he worked in the UK, UK Rail and London Transport. Then he went to Sydney. And then, he most recently was running the Toronto system.

CHRIS HAYES: So this is a guy who knows sort of comparatively, like. So there's one big thing which is that ... and this is broader than just New York City, although New York City ... is that, it's unbelievable how far we are, behind in public transport. Not just subways but like, bus rapid transit, all sorts of ways of getting people around that are happening not just in China where like, okay, fine. They've been investing like crazy and every airport was built in the last four days and looks, you know, all gleaming.

But in a place like Rio, or in other places in like, the global south. Or in Southeast Asia, where they have all sorts of very cool transportation innovations that are in places that are much poorer than the US, relative to us. Like, what, what do you see Byford's role and what do you see as the stuff that we should be learning, both in New York and in other cities across the country?

AARON GORDON: You know, very much like what you were saying about the summer of 2017 telling us like, we aren't crazy; the system really has gotten worse. Byford's played a role in that, too. He came in and one of the first major things he said ... I think it was like three weeks after he started his job, is he was like, "Yeah, it's not overcrowding."

CHRIS HAYES: The thing that we've been telling you.

AARON GORDON: Yeah, he was like, it's not overcrowding, he was like, "I fundamentally reject that as a reason; that's a symptom of some more root cause and what my job is going to be is, finding that root cause." And that had another effect, I think especially amongst those of us who play closer attention to this stuff, to be like, "Yes, we're not crazy; this is really what's going on."

So he's had kind of a grounding effect on the system, I think it's less about any individual policy he's put in place so far, although he has done some good stuff around signal timers and speed limits, where he's created a unit that literally goes around the entire system to test the timers by ... the good old fashioned hard way. Being in a subway train, and going the speed limit, and seeing if they trip the brakes.

CHRIS HAYES: Wow, so just like individually testing those timers that are littered throughout the system.

AARON GORDON: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I went on the train with them, it was a good time. You're just going like, 25 miles an hour, and all of a sudden the train brakes come in, and it's like, okay, that timer doesn't work. You know? And then they have to, they send out a crew to fix it.

CHRIS HAYES: So just, I just want to say, for people that haven't been on a New York City subway, and I don't know what percentage of listeners that is, like, it's a miracle because what it does, it's like Madeleine L'Engel's "Wrinkle in Time." Quite literally, it squeezes space together, because a city subway underneath the ground can go what, 35 miles an hour?

AARON GORDON: They can go up to 55.

CHRIS HAYES: They can go up to 55. Okay? And when you're on a train that's going full speed, you feel like you are in a magical star war.

AARON GORDON: I feel like a superhero; I'm not gonna lie.

CHRIS HAYES: You feel like, it's a crazy, futuristic, magical feeling. You feel the ricketing, it feels like, you can feel the rattling, it feels a little dangerous, but it's not. And it's magical. You are being transported across space and time, essentially, in a way that is impossible to replicate in any other way. And it takes a city which is massively vast, geographically, contains millions and millions of people and it shrinks it down.

It's the closest thing that exists to teleporting, that humans have. Really, honestly. Like you can almost teleport in the city when the subway's working well. So when you talk about like the difference between a signal that's going off at 25 miles an hour when that train can go to 45, or whatever, that's the difference between teleporting and sitting in traffic, basically.

AARON GORDON: Yeah, essentially. I mean, the subway system right now is very much analogous to one that has gridlock. One thing Byford has done is he said, we need to stop pretending that New York is so special. And not in a pedantic, or way to put us down. But I mean, I think he loves New York probably more than anybody else who lives here. But, he means it in a way that, we need to stop thinking we need to customize every solution for New York, because New York is so exceptional.

It's like this disease that a lot of decision makers in New York have, that we often call New York exceptionalism. And a big manifestation of this has been in the way that they've re-signaled the system. Now, re-signaling the system is super, super important, because of what I was talking about earlier with the traffic lights, right? How like there's all that space between cars, where if you could make that space less, you could run more trains. And running more trains means running more capacity. Each train fits about 2,000 people. So, if you could just run-

CHRIS HAYES: Wow, a train is 2,000 people.

AARON GORDON: At, a really packed train fits about 2,000 people, so-

CHRIS HAYES: I've been on some, I've been on some 2,500 numbers.

AARON GORDON: Yeah. That's right. And you know, if can just run, you know, people say, one extra train, who cares? It's like, well, one extra train is a lot of people, and if you can get those trains to squeeze together, you can run two, three, four extra trains, and that makes a huge, huge difference on the number of people the subway can run. They've started re-signaling in the ... the process for re-signaling in the '90s, it's not like a new idea they have. The problem is, they thought that they have to do it special. And so, that's come with costs, delays, problems. It takes them an average of a decade to re-signal a single line. Whereas others, like London, have re-signaled multiple lines in a decade.

CHRIS HAYES: See, this is such an important point, because this is a point much bigger than the subway. Every American policy discussion begins and ends in America. Like, it's just like, well, how do we, it's like, Universal healthcare. Oh, boy, I don't know. It's like, it's a solved problem.

Like, again, like re-signaling a line. That's a solved problem. Other people have done it. Creating bus rapid transit. Again, solved problem. And that's true of a ton of different stuff. There's all kinds of ways, like, parental leave. Like, there are other countries that just have figured out the policy. You know, we don't have to invent it from scratch. Like, go steal a good idea from another country that's got it.

And this is true about so many different areas of policy, where like, New York exceptionalism is an obvious nod to American exceptionalism. The two do fit together, because, there are lots of countries in the world, they encounter a whole bunch of interesting problems all the time, about how to order a society. And there's lots of free ideas you can just steal from them, that we're very, very reluctant to do.

AARON GORDON: A realization I came to recently, that I'm very proud of myself for having come to, I'm not gonna lie, is that the New York City subway in the past 20 to 30 years has changed from being the best subway system in America to the worst big city subway system in the world.


AARON GORDON: And, almost nothing in that change is about anything the subway is doing different. The subway looks and feels very similar to how it did 20, 30 years ago. Everything we just discussed aside, it's mostly a problem of stasis. It's mostly a problem of them not changing as every other system gets better. London is a really great example here, and I mean, not just because it's an Anglo-centric city that's comparable to New York in a lot of ways, but because they also had a lot of problems in the '80s and '90s. And if you talk to someone who lived in London around then, it would have been almost unfathomable to them that by now, the London Underground or what is now Transport for London, would be an internationally recognized model for what urban transit should look like. The difference was, after the 80s and 90s, they changed the model.

Whereas, in the 80s when the subway broke down, nobody changed the model. They created this new funding mechanism in the Capital Program, but it was still the MTA, it was still New York City Transit, and they basically ... what that new money did was basically reset the cycle.

And what I'm worried about now is, we're going to have conversations about changing the MTA, about changing the model. But it's not going to actually happen. And all we're going to do is get more money, and reset the cycle once again.

CHRIS HAYES: The reason this is so pressing, as well, is that there is a lot of infrastructure that has to be built in this country to get emissions cut in half, in the next 12 years. Which is what we're up against.


CHRIS HAYES: We've gotta cut emissions in half in the whole world, but starting here right at home, in 12 years. We gotta deploy lots of rapid transit, we gotta do a lot of things to cut emissions, and if we have the current models we have, they just don't have the capacity to do it. Like, even building a new subway line costs like 90 trillion dollars, or whatever the hell the freaking Second Avenue subway costs. It's like, we've gotta do it for cheaper. We have to.

AARON GORDON: Not only do we have to do it for cheaper, but we also have to fundamentally change the way we view getting around. Currently, roughly three-fourths of Americans commute in single occupancy cars.


AARON GORDON: Which, when I think about that number, it makes me feel like, well, why should we even bother. Like, do you know ... we're so screwed. But obviously like, that's not really an answer. But it, the challenge is so significant. And the attitudes we have to change are so ingrained in American culture. You think back to how car culture became a thing in the '40s and especially '50s. I mean, if you talk about freedom to an American, and you ask them what that looks like, a lot of Americans will respond with something about the open road.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, a car on the open road.

AARON GORDON: Yeah, car on the open road, and-

CHRIS HAYES: I'll tell you what freedom looks like to me. Freedom to me looks like getting on an express train when you need to go to a local stop, but then the stop before the local stop, the express pulls in and there's a local and you just cross the platform, and then you go one stop. That's what freedom looks like to me.

AARON GORDON: Express trains are a New York exceptionalism. Speaking of New York exceptionalism-

CHRIS HAYES: Are express trains.

AARON GORDON: ... express trains is where New York exceptionalism comes in. We're one of the only systems with them, probably the only system that ever will have them, because they're more expensive to build, you know, you obviously have to build four tracks instead of two.


AARON GORDON: So most just build two tracks, now. Especially as costs have gone up.


AARON GORDON: But we still have express trains, and you know, you talk about the time travel, teleportation element of the subway. It's express trains that make that. It's the 2/3, going from Times Square to 72nd Street at 55 miles an hour that makes that. It's the B running uptown, or the-

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, or the A train that goes 60 blocks at one point, without a stop.

AARON GORDON: Right. That's what time travel is. If they were all local trains, I'm not sure New York would be what it is today. Because when the subway got built in 1904, one of the main benefits was that it opened up the Bronx, to development. And one of the reasons it was able to do that was because of the express trains. If it had to make all those local stops, that would have doubled the commute time, you know, so that's a huge element of it.

CHRIS HAYES: One of the things you see in New York right now ... tell me if I'm wrong, New Yorkers who are sitting here in the studio ... like, my calculation to take a car to drive somewhere, or to take an Uber or Lyft somewhere, has been altered by the quality of subway. I think about it more, because I think that maybe the subway will be screwed up. And driving around New York sucks.

AARON GORDON: It's terrible, yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: Sucks. Like, it's terrible whether you're doing the driving or someone else is doing the driving, like, it sucks. It's much better to be in the subway. But, if you have to be somewhere, if I'm doing like a speaking event downtown, and there's this one-in-12, snake-eye's chance of like, getting on to an F train that sits there for 20 minutes ... and I think that's true for everyone, right?


CHRIS HAYES: The point being that like, yes, the car culture but ... if people have alternatives to commute in ways that are reliable and fast and don't have them, by themselves, driving. Like, there's some group of people, in terms of low hanging fruit that we can move to that sort of system and reduce emissions, if the alternatives were there.

AARON GORDON: I think there are kind of two important elements to that. One is, you know, you talk about the decision making element, here. I think everybody goes through that, and now, we're in a society where cars are almost always the best answer to that question-

CHRIS HAYES: Right, right.

AARON GORDON: ... because of policy decisions made on the federal, state, local level plus how corporations have been structured to incentivize us to buy cars. And a lot of this has to do with equity problems.

You know, you go back, you look at the changes to cities in the '50s, '60s and '70s. All the federal programs that subsidized the building of highways, but not transit.


AARON GORDON: Subsidized home ownership, in suburbs primarily. And in a lot of ways, structurally made those things available to almost exclusively white people.


AARON GORDON: Those were all decisions that were made at a higher level to create a society that we have now, where we now say, oh, you know, obviously I'm going to drive, there's no bus near me. And it's like, that dynamic is something that has been cultivated and created for decades. And we're not gonna get out of it simply by starting a new bus route.

CHRIS HAYES: And let me tell you, like people that can ... like, in place ... New York is a place, the New York metro area is a place where people commute from all kinds of places in all kinds of ways. And I know people that have moved from a suburb, where they had to drive to work every day, to one where they could like, drive 10 minutes and park and take a commuter line in. Like, almost everyone would prefer to do that. Like, that is a huge net benefit, if you're not sitting in traffic every day. Like, it's just the fact that what is available is constrained. Right?

Image: NY Subway Graffiti
Subway car marked with graffiti tags passes through a station in New York circa May, 1973.Smith Collection / Gado/Getty Images file

But, to the extent that we can imagine a new future ... and we're going to have to, because we have to build out so much capacity to forestall the climate apocalypse ... I think that there's a lot, behavior would change very quickly if given the options.

AARON GORDON: Oh, absolutely, it's just about how quickly we can make those options available.

CHRIS HAYES: That is the big question. That's the question that looms over all of us. I'm hoping that the subway gets ... the subway's gotten a little better recently, but I'm hoping it gets better, faster. As does the rest of the world, so that we do forestall the climate catastrophe.

Aaron Gordon is a New York city transportation reporter. He writes a fantastic, really, like, it's such an interesting well-crafted, well-researched, well written newsletter. It's a weekly newsletter called "Signal Problems", which I think you might enjoy and find interesting, even if you don't live in New York City, just because it's interesting to watch someone who really knows his stuff kind of explain what's going on in a massive system. You can follow him on Twitter @A_W_Gordon. Aaron, thanks so much.

AARON GORDON: Thank you, Chris.

CHRIS HAYES: Once again, my great thanks to Aaron Gordon. He writes "Signal Problems", and you can go, if you Google “Signal Problems Aaron Gordon,” you can go sign up for that newsletter. It's great, even if you don't live in New York City, and you're just kind of a train nerd. I know those people exist, or a transportation nerd. I know those people exist. Bless you, good on ya. You can subscribe, and it's really, really, excellent.

Also, if you liked this episode, there's two other episodes you might like. Abdul El-Sayed's Oct. 23 episode about medicare for all, which again, is about building another big public system, and Eric Klinenberg's Sept. 25 conversation about social infrastructure and his book "Palaces for the People", which is about things like libraries, public parks, subway systems, big pieces of social infrastructure that kind of stitch together the fabric of society. Both those are really interesting, I think they relate to a lot of the themes and issues Aaron and I talk about here.

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Related links:

Social Infrastructure Week with Eric Klinenberg

Medicare for All with Abdul El-Sayed

Signal Problems

"Why Is This Happening?" is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the "All In" team, and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our including links to things we mentioned here by going to