After just two short years, New York City Transit president Andy Byford has resigned, a decision that was met on Thursday with shock and disappointment from politicians, transit advocates, and commuters alike.
“This is a bad day for riders,” says Jaqi Cohen, the campaign director for Straphangers. That sentiment was echoed by City Council speaker Corey Johnson, who said he was “DEVASTATED” by Byford’s departure (and used the opportunity to renew his call for municipal control of the subways and buses).
Even Mayor Bill de Blasio, never the biggest subway advocate, said on The Brian Lehrer Show that the MTA should do what it can to convince Byford to stick around. “I don’t think guys like Andy Byford grow on trees,” de Blasio said. “I think he’s a pretty special talent, and he’s proven he can handle New York City. Let’s try and keep him.”
During his two-year tenure, Byford helped pull the battered transit system out of the constant crisis mode that it was in during the so-called “summer of hell” of 2017; he also rolled out several ambitious proposals intended to improve the long-term health of the buses and subways, including redesigning routes for the former, and modernizing the latter’s ancient signals.
“I’m very proud of what we have achieved as a team over the past two years and I believe New York City Transit is well-placed to continue its forward progress now that the MTA has a record breaking $51.5 billion Capital Program in place,” Byford said in a statement.
But while subway service has improved under Byford’s leadership—on-time performance numbers were up in 2019—it’s still very far from being fixed. And the subway chief’s departure now has advocates questioning whether the momentum of the past two years can be sustained.
“I don’t think this means riders are going to wake up tomorrow and service is going to return to the bad old days of 2017,” says Ben Fried, communications director of TransitCenter. “I do think this calls into question whether the improvements that are underway are actually going to get carried out. I think this has long-term implications for the future of transit service in New York City.”
Those improvements include many components of Byford’s Fast Forward plan, which forms the backbone of the MTA’s 2020-2024 capital plan. Just over $37 billion is allocated to NYCT in order to fund much-needed upgrades—things like modernizing the subway’s antiquated signaling system, improving accessibility at many stations, and replacing run-down subway cars and buses. But without Byford at the helm, some advocates question if those improvements will be pursued as aggressively.
“I’m worried that the ambitious capital plan will be scaled back,” says Cohen. “While [the] day-to-day won’t change drastically, the improvements we’re desperate for, we might not see.”
Byford also rolled out changes that directly affected riders’ day-to-day commutes, most notably through his “Save Safe Seconds” campaign, which he launched in an effort to get trains moving faster. That program has been making steady progress since it was implemented in 2018, and led the MTA to create its own task force, which recently recommended increasing train speeds up to 50 percent in certain parts of the system.
“Andy Byford took the crumbling transit system and he sped it up and he saw that trains could [safely] run faster and deliver better service,” says Danny Pearlstein, the policy and communications director of Riders Alliance. “What we really need is that leader who can get into the nitty-gritty and tweak it to make our commutes better.”
The near-universal mourning over Byford’s resignation also speaks to the subway chief’s popularity. Since assuming his post at the beginning of 2018, Byford has been a visible presence to commuters, whether he was conducting Twitter AMAs, chatting with riders at subway stops, or helping clean up after a massive leak at the Grand Central station. He even embraced the “Train Daddy” nickname bestowed on him by transit wonks—something that’s hard to imagine, say, Gov. Andrew Cuomo doing. For New Yorkers accustomed to leaders who aren’t regular transit riders, his visibility was somewhat reassuring.
“New Yorkers had this feeling that like, ‘Okay, the subways suck, but there’s somebody there fixing this,’” says Nick Sifuentes, the executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “Now, we’re going to lose that security blanket, and that’s going to make people feel a little less secure that things are getting better.”
Does this mean that your commute is going to get worse without Byford steering the proverbial New York City Transit ship? Probably not—but it also means that riders must continue to hold those responsible for how we get around to account.
“The transit system is much bigger than any one person, and it’s by and large the governor’s shadow that looms largest over it,” says Pearlstein. “We can’t let our eye off the ball—for everything Andy has done, transit has not reached an acceptable level of service yet. We need the governor and transit aides beneath him to continue to improve reliability, accessibility, and frequency.”
And whoever is tasked with running NYCT after Byford will have a huge task ahead of them “When we look back on transit in five years, 10 years, 15 years, we’ll hopefully be able to say that what Byford planted grew into a reimagining of the transit system, even if he wasn’t the man who was here to oversee the entire process,” says Sifuentes. “[But] somebody’s gotta right the ship there, and keep the trains literally running.”