Subway Delays Spur a Radical Policy Change at the MTA

In response to mounting delays on the overburdened system, the MTA experiments with honesty.

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Based on research by Joel Brockner

Overcrowding on the New York City Subway has brought the system to its knees.

Between 1990 and 2016, ridership nearly doubled from 1 billion annual riders to 1.8 billion. While ridership has exploded, however, the system has barely grown at all. The New York Times reported in June 2017 that only 27 more subway cars have been added to the system over the same period. Due to the overcrowding, trains are often held up in stations as customers jostle to get on and off.

Train derailments in both June and July of this year have further rattled commuters, but it was an earlier incident at the beginning of June, and the public outrage it stoked, that prompted a major policy change at the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which runs the system.

Due to a power failure between Broadway-Lafayette and West 4th Street in Lower Manhattan on June 5, riders on an F train were stranded for nearly an hour without light or air conditioning. Cellphone footage showing passengers attempting to claw open the doors of one of the steamed up train cars was shared widely online.

The MTA has responded by ditching the pre-recorded announcements formerly broadcast during these incidents, and instructing train conductors to give more detailed, specific, and honest information to riders. A reporter for the New York Times, Maggie Astor, detailed her experience with the MTA’s new policy of radical honesty after a train she was riding struck and killed a passenger. While the experience of honesty in the system itself was a surprise, Astor wrote, “nobody seemed annoyed about waiting. And that was most unusual of all.”

Riders took to Twitter to praise the new policy, which is gradually being rolled out according to MTA chairman Joe Lhota. Joel Brockner, the Phillip Hettleman Professor of Business and author, most recently, of The Process Matters, also voiced support for the MTA’s decision. “Even relatively small changes in how problems are handled can have a huge effect on people,” he said. “We live in a results-oriented society — the outcome matters — but how you get there matters too. Open, honest communication can go a long way to improving relationships between customers, employees, and management.”

Joel Brockner is the faculty director of the High Impact Leadership, Leadership Essentials, and Developing Leaders Program for Nonprofit Professionals at Columbia Business School Executive Education.

About the researcher

Joel Brockner

Within the broader field of organizational behavior, Professor Brockner is well known for his work in several areas, including the effects of organizational downsizing...

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