Was New York Shut Down by Safety Spuds?
How’s the discourse, by-products and trade-offs!
On 26th January 2015, The US National Weather Service (NWS) predicted that a “potentially historic blizzard”, possibly “the worst ever”, would strike the north eastern states. New York reacted by shutting down their subway system and declaring a travel ban for all but emergency vehicles on every road in 13 counties in southern New York state, including New York City with the threat of a $300 fine for violators. While New York’s subway system was previously closed prior to major storms such as the 2012 Superstorm Sandy, this was the first time they had shutdown the system due to a snow warning. Broadway shows and major sporting events were also cancelled. The NWS got it wrong, the storm spared New York. It did affect other areas such as Boston but not to any significant extent.
Now the City’s leaders are said to be “red faced” and in spin mode trying to defend their decisions. Whether the decisions were right or wrong is not for me to judge but some very interesting statements were made before and after the event and worth sharing and discussing:
- New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said “If you are in your car and you are on any road, town, village, city, it doesn’t matter, after 11 o’clock, you will technically be committing a crime,” Cuomo said. “It could be a matter of life and death so caution is required.”
- “I would rather, if there is a lean one way or another, lean towards safety because I have seen the consequences the other way and it gets very frightening very quickly … we have had people die in storms,” Cuomo told reporters at a news conference. “I would rather be in a situation where we say ‘We got lucky.'”
- The City’s Mayor, Bill de Blasio, said “Would you rather be prepared or unprepared? Would you rather be safe or unsafe?” ….. “My job as the leader is to make decisions and I will always err on the side of safety and caution.”
- de Blasio said on CNN that “this is a better safe than sorry scenario” and that “we dodged a bullet.”
Benjamin Kabak in his blog post “A postmortem on Cuomo’s questionable subway snow decision” dug a little deeper into the motives, by-products and trade-offs (see There is always a risk trade off by Dr Rob Long and Could understanding grey be the silver bullet by Rob Sams) and raises these interesting points:
- Four years ago, when a huge winter storm socked New York City, the MTA and then-Gov. David Paterson, in the final few days of his tenure, got unlucky. For the first time in years, two subway trains — an N train in the Sea Beach line and an A train a few hundred yards outside of Howard Beach — were stranded for hours. Snow piled up; trains couldn’t move; lawsuits were filed. It was a political nightmare with the headlines to match. Since then, the MTA has tried to address bad weather events, and they have, by and large, succeeded.
- The agency’s response to this worst-case scenario was to develop plans for various amounts of snow that largely maintained subway service. Generally, in blizzard conditions, all express service is curtailed so Transit can store trains underground, and service along the train lines that operate in open trenches rather than along elevated lines is curtailed. And you know what? It worked! Trains operated throughout most of the city, and no one was stranded in snowstorms. It required employees to clear elevated platforms, but the city could operate largely as normal.
- It doesn’t even really matter how much snow we get because, for some reason, Gov. Cuomo shuttered subway service at 11 p.m., and by all accounts, the decision was a unilateral one.
- The MTA didn’t see this coming. After all, the city had never in 110 years closed the subways due to snow, and in fact, early on Monday, Tom Prendergast basically said that a shutdown was unnecessary. As he noted, most of the subway network is underground, and it doesn’t snow underground. Now, we learn that the subway shutdown caught the MTA off guard. Via a report in the Brooklyn Paper that’s been corroborated by other MTA sources, the agency may continue to run empty trains because the Governor thought he knew best:
“Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s move to shut off the city’s subway system overnight on Monday ahead of an anticipated blizzard came as a surprise to transit workers and runs against common sense, because the trains need to move as part of keeping the tracks clear and will be running all night anyway, according to a transit insider. The governor’s 6 pm announcement that subway and bus service would be halted completely at 11 pm came as a surprise to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Incident Command Center, where workers first heard about it on the news, said the source, who lacks authorization to speak about internal matters and asked to remain anonymous.
The halting of subway service is the first ever for a snowstorm. It is ill-considered because an actual turning-off of the entire system requires moving all the cars to far-flung facilities for storage, as the agency did during Hurricane Sandy, when flooding was a concern, and rebooting from that takes ages, the insider said. Emergency personnel will be riding the trains overnight while no one else is allowed to, per the source. The closure will strand people and put lives at risk, not because the subways can’t run, but because Cuomo wants to look good, the source said…
The lack of ground transportation options makes keeping the subway open all the more important, the transit source said. “The roads being closed is all the more reason the underground lifeline should be open,” the source said.”
- The problem with Cuomo’s decision is that it doesn’t make sense. It’s a noble goal to keep cars off the road so that emergency response teams and plows can move through the city unimpeded. But it ignores the reality of New York City — an often inconvenient one for Cuomo — to shutter the subway. Now, New Yorkers, from everyone building cleaning crews to service employees at bars who are on duty until 4 a.m. to nurses and hospitals on duty overnight, can’t get around the city because the Governor decided it was somehow a danger for a subway system that operates largely underground to keep running through a massive but hardly unprecedented snow storm. Cuomo doesn’t want to deal with headlines placing the blame for the next stranded subway on his shoulders so instead, the entire city is effectively shut down.
- A great irony in the governor’s move is that the subway itself arose from the paralysis of the Blizzard of 1888. New Yorkers needed a way to get around in a snow storm, and the subways were the perfect antidote to surface congestion. Now, after two hurricanes during which it made sense to stop subway service due to serious flooding concerns, the governor has decided that favorable headlines trump urban life. After all these years, should we expect anything else from a governor who hasn’t recognized the role transit plays in driving New York City’s existence? Sadly, I guess not.
Still not satisfied, we dug even deeper……. and identified the man responsible for advising Cuomo and de Blasio – New York City’s VP of Risk, Fear and Compliance, Larry Spudoffsky CSP, SRTW, NFI.
Spudoffsky told us: “This is the highlight of my safety career, finally I got the chance to show the people how safety should be done. The decision to shutdown New York was unprecedented because never before have we had the tools available to justify such risk aversion” Spudoffsky said. “I had only recently downloaded the new ZERO HARM App for my iphone. It is so easy now, I don’t have to consult with any of the stakeholders, I just punch in a few parameters and the Zero Harm algorithm spits out a completely objective assessment of the risk. In fact, this App is so powerful that I can justify virtually any act of over zealous safety. We are now in a position to say that Zero Harm is more than just an aspirational goal and we have just categorically proven that.” He concluded by saying: “Now we can shoot for the stars and even if we miss, then we still land on the moon”.
When asked about the potential risk of by-products and trade-offs Spudoffsky said: “um…ah….please explain?”
To quote Dr Long:
“So, if you hear some story about a simple solution to a safety problem, just wait, it will only be a matter of time before the by-product will become visible and then the value of the trade off will be realized” ( See: There is always a risk trade off and Could understanding grey be the silver bullet)