Interviews & Profiles

Improving subways with a focus on customer service

An interview with New York City Transit President Richard Davey

New York City Transit President Richard Davey

New York City Transit President Richard Davey Metropolitan Transportation Authority

When Richard Davey joined the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in 2022, the city subways had 3.1 million daily riders. The former Massachusetts secretary of transportation led a post-pandemic revitalization of the subway system by focusing on improving public safety, upgrading its signals and making stations more accessible. Ridership slowly rebounded to 3.6 million in 2023, making Davey a target for other transportation leadership posts. He’s reportedly one of two finalists for CEO of the Massachusetts Port Authority and may well be the favorite to take the job. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Much of your earlier career was spent on transportation policy in Boston. How do the two cities compare? What experiences carried over to your work at the MTA? 

Obviously the scale in New York compared with nothing else in the Western Hemisphere in terms of the size of the transit system. We have folks who are trying to make ends meet using our service, and millionaires and billionaires. It’s in some respects like Boston. Every New Yorker has a subway story that’s often positive and constructive. New Yorkers know what I do for a living. It makes me appreciate the job even more. I tell people I have the best job in New York City because what we do really matters to 6 million people today.

I ran the Boston service 14 years ago. I was a younger man. COVID-19 has certainly changed the dynamic for all systems. Mental health is a huge challenge for us here and for other major urban centers.

When I took the job in Boston, my mother gave me a clock saying, “You’re only as good as your last rush hour.” It reinforces that customers have to come first and we really try to imbue that. Our customer services tell us that interacting with emotionally disturbed individuals is the No. 1 concern. Making sure they get the help and services they need is something that we’ve been trying to do for months.

How can the MTA ensure the influx of funds that is expected to come from congestion pricing helps low-income New Yorkers, including those who live in “transit deserts?”

We need to make sure that the dollars we’re getting from congestion pricing and other sources goes into ensuring reliable service. I was not a New Yorker during the Summer of Hell of 2017. I was a consultant for the MTA during that time. It was pretty awful. If you were relying on the subway, it was a miserable experience.

We need to make sure low-income workers, a lot of them are hourly paid, get to their job on time. They don’t have the benefit of showing up when they show up and leaving when they leave. Thanks to the governor and Legislature, we got more money to provide more service. We’re running more service on nights, weekends, midday and rush hour, which is helpful for low-income New Yorkers who rely on us. And we’ve worked with the city to get the word out for Fair Fares, not only for seniors and those disabled, but those below an income threshold to apply for lower fares. 

The city has improved that and we’ve worked with the city to promote that throughout the system. We’re trying to get the word out. We estimate 1 million New Yorkers qualify for that system and aren’t in that yet.

What have you learned from the MTA free bus pilot program? When exactly will it wrap up? 

We’re still crunching the data but suffice to say ridership is up on those lines. It stands to reason because it’s free, but we need to learn a little more about who those folks are. Are they new commuters, people who use the bus more frequently, using the bus over subway? And the purpose of their trip is? We need to look at the data there to understand. 

The pilot will be well past six months and closer to a year, probably closer to the time our employees pick work, which happens four times a year. So, maybe late summer. Our bus operators choose their work four times a year. They decide, by seniority, to drive which bus route or from which bus depot. When we have changes in our service, we align those changes to the schedules we provide employees to select their work.

What’s the latest on improving express bus access to LaGuardia Airport?

Broadly speaking on the Queens bus redesign, we’re back out doing more public process. We learned that when we last did redesigns, we did not engage with the public enough. My observation was the MTA wasn’t doing enough engagement in the past, and we’re trying to change that. We’re in the seventh inning of a nine inning game but we won't be implementing any final changes until next year.

That said, we still have to get more community input. Even though we did a Bronx redesign last summer, we went back and did more tweaks after we rolled it out. We had a bus stop near a popular church and people relied on that bus stop to get to that church. So, we put it back. 

On the Q70, we’ve been in contact with the Port Authority. I was on it a few weeks back and I made suggestions about what we can do with signage to improve it. I noticed we could improve signage on the bus about which terminals had which airlines and when the bus was crowded you wouldn’t be able to see the signage.

Are there any other bus line developments you can speak about?

Obviously the Brooklyn redesign will be behind Queens. We’re investing in express bus service in advance of congestion pricing, about $1 million in bus service. 

And we are rolling out automated camera enforcement in the next few weeks. This allows us to ticket cars that are using bus lanes. We’ve had that power now for a few years, but the new program will allow us to ticket cars parked in bus stops and double parked in the way of buses. And for our cyclist friends, cars that are parked in bike lanes, we’ll be able to ticket them too. We’re looking forward to that because that also changes behavior we’ve seen and it improves bus speeds which is the gold standard of improved bus service.

You recently introduced OMNY vending machines at some subway stations. What’s the timeline for these to be in all stations? 

We’re super excited about OMNY. It’s the one thing I hear from customers and friends we hear from out of town. I saw an article in the Boston Globe interviewing Phil Eng (general manager and CEO of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority), and he said his ride in the subway was “magical” because of OMNY. We have 45 to 50 machines turned on now and installing a couple of machines a night before we can get to the full rollout. We need to convert particular customer segments to OMNY, including students, seniors and Fair Fares. We’re piloting paratransit right now and Fair Fares on OMNY, and we hope to give students the capability this fall. And then there’s our retail network. We have to work with bodegas, small mom-and-pop businesses that sell MetroCards to get comfortable with cross-selling OMNY. We’re at least 18 months out from fully retiring MetroCards. We have to do this right. When I took this job, I got a couple of going away gifts, a MetroCard christmas ornament and a MetroCard puzzle. It’s so steeped in how we think of this system, but more than 50% of our subway customers use OMNY in one form or another.

What are some key innovations during your tenure? Do you have any predictions of what we could see in 10-20 years?

So two things I’m proud of. It’s a little wonky, but we’re focused on predictive maintenance. That’s an important technological improvement. We are piloting technology on buses to predict a bus failure before it fails and have a repair plan. This is the check engine light coming on in the bus but the bus knows. There’s AI technology machine learning in the bus that once it comes on, it finishes its trip, goes into the bus depot, and the depot spits out a repair plan. It looks at anomalies recorded in the AI and predicts what the issue is. We’re saving money because we’re fixing the bus quickly.

Another thing on the analogue side is taking our station agents out of the booths. We worked with labor, trained all 2,300 of our station agents in customer service, some of which haven’t had it in years, and saw an uptick in customer satisfaction when they began having face-to-face interaction with passengers. Customer touch is important, including giving directions and helping people with MetroCard. The past is the future for us. We want to have more hands-on customer service. And the agents are doing a great job.