When Erik Seims is at a party and people ask him what he does for a living, he sometimes hesitates in giving an answer.
“The second I tell someone I work for the MTA, I immediately have to hear every horror story they have ever experienced and every bus that didn’t show up when it was supposed to,” says the forty-one-year-old staff analyst. “It’s like, ‘Oh God, here it comes.’”
After spending fourteen years at the Department of City Planning in New York, Seims has been with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Office of Management and Budget for the past six months. But Seims’s (pronounced SIGH-hems) path to MTA employment was rather unconventional. In transportation parlance, one might even say his career was rerouted by a temporary service alert.
It all started when Seims was four years old. A young boy growing up in Brooklyn, with a keen mind for maps and patterns, he took joy in riding the subway. Since then, he has traveled on every segment of the New York City transit system, including the commuter rails. Although the number of routes has varied over time, the system currently consists of 468 stations with 660 miles of track used for passenger service. Seims was twenty-seven years old before he finished riding the subway from the beginning to the end of every stretch of track.
“At one point in my mid-twenties, I actually did get a map and highlight all the routes I’d traveled in order to see what I had missed,” he tells me as we eat pizza at a Union Square restaurant. “Before that, however, it was actually all very hodgepodge.”
It was Seims’s father who agreed to take him on train rides every weekend. He did this, Seims says, “to his everlasting credit.”
In his vintage New York City travels, he saw the Guardian Angels and graffiti. He says it wasn’t quite like “The Warriors,” but when he was just ten years old, he came very close to being mugged. There were many more track fires than there are now. Things were only repaired after they were broken, and sometimes not even then.
“The system was very unreliable and very scary, but also very exciting in a way that I guess you could say it isn’t now. I don’t want to overdramatize it,” Seims goes on, “but outside of rush hour, far fewer people used the system, which meant emptier cars and a less secure environment.”
Most importantly, a kid could stand in the front car and look out the window.
“With the modern trains now, there’s a full-length train operator cab at the front,” says Seims. “But back then, it was just a piece of glass between you and certain doom.”
Seims’s parents quickly figured out that something fishy was going on when he didn’t return from his Brooklyn elementary school quite as early as he should have.
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“I would leave school in the fifth grade and instead of going home, I would take the F train down to Coney Island,” he recalls. “The station was only four blocks out of the way. One day, it just occurred to me that I could do this. I could ride the train by myself. Then I would take a different train back. It was exciting.”
The little traveler made no effort to hide his subway rendezvous from his parents, admitting he’s “never been a very good liar.”
Seims is quick-witted and walks with a jaunty lilt in his step due to being born with shortened ankle tendons. His dry job belies a deep underlying creativity. Slender, with a handsome face and short brown hair, he speaks confidently with no distinguishable New York accent. He used to perform as a character named Creepy Edgar, an awkward fellow who said inappropriate things to people in the audience, at the Collective: Unconscious art space on the Lower East Side. Seims has also self-published a book of short stories, and recently completed a yearly desk calendar with a list of fake historical facts called “This Day in New York City, Sort Of,” with such “facts” as “December 17, 1835: The Great Fire of 1835 is extended to a second day thanks to the overwhelming success of its Kickstarter campaign.”
Today, Seims’s job as a ridership analyst involves synthesizing and interpreting data in order to suss out trends about just who is riding the trains, when, where and why. He is one of many MTA analysts, but his tasks deal specifically with ridership. He updates numerous spreadsheets and databases comprising everything from the receipts to the weather.
“Once a week I update a log of precipitation and temperature for each day,” he explains, “because we have a model that looks at the effect of weather on transit ridership. I do the reconciliation reports on Select Bus Service. Those are the routes like the B44 where off-board fare payment encourages faster operation…” He stalls for a minute, sounding slightly frustrated.
“Look, I’m trying to compress this to avoid a three-paragraph detour which would put your readers to sleep,” he finally says.
Lately, the transit authority has gotten more aggressive in dealing with service diversions due to maintenance work. Some are very short-term and last half a day, others last a whole weekend, and all of them frustrate hopeful passengers.
“People have to go where they have to go!” Seims says empathetically.
The New York subway system is one of only three in the United States, along with Chicago and Philadelphia, that has express tracks. Seims notes that this type of “redundancy” makes it far easier to reroute people when trains go down. There are many external factors that affect ridership, such as a parade or a catastrophe, like the recent gas main explosion in Harlem. Such service diversions are important to Seims’s job because he has to analyze the data in case someone wonders why ridership was heavier or lighter in a certain place. A diversion would mean some people are taking other trains or buses. He analyzes this data for present-day use, and also for the benefit of future generations.
“Fifty years from now someone will notice that the Smith/9th Street station had unusually high ridership and they’re not going to know why unless they know something else was closed,” he says.
However, Seims notes one of the biggest influences in subway ridership has been the shifting demographic of New York itself.
“L-line ridership has shot through the roof in the past twenty years,” he says, maintaining his excitement level. “Greenwich Village is being dragged East on a clothesline. And the L-train is that clothesline.”
Currently, Seims is working on an internal passion project, trying to piece together New York’s historical subway ridership statistics in order to interpret how and why people traveled in the past.
“There are changes that go on in New York. Not just across space but across time.” At this, he pauses for emphasis before booming like an old-timey radio announcer: “SPACE… AND… TIME!”
For example, twenty-five years ago New Yorkers primarily used the subway to get to and from work. But now, they take far more trips for recreational reasons. The largest uptick in ridership is now in the evening from seven p.m. to midnight. Much of this has to do with how people work and socialize. Although New York has been renowned for its nightlife for much longer than the past couple of decades, there is a new level of comfort with using the subway, thanks to an historic drop in crime and years of work put into the system.
These days, it’s hardly unusual for a New Yorker to saunter into the office at ten a.m. and stay until eight at night. Seims explains that if one looks at a chart of subway ridership over a typical twenty-four-hour day from sixty years ago, they would see a huge spike from nine a.m. followed by a drop off, and a huge spike at five p.m. with a drop off again. People just went home. These days, people work later, stay out later and travel to late-night shows in the city’s outer boroughs.
In the 1930s, Monday was the highest ridership day of the week. Mysteriously, it’s now Thursday. Why? Seims is looking for answers, and has yet to come up with a concrete theory. But he’s pretty sure he knows the highest subway ridership date in New York history: December 29, 1947 – although he admits he “could be off by a day.”
“[That] was the day after the Blizzard of 1947, one of the biggest storms in the city’s history,” he says, without the benefit of notes. “All of the bus and trolley network was knocked out, so you had to take the train. 8,533,000 or so people rode the subway on that one day.”
Seims graduated from Buffalo State College with a degree in journalism in 1995, something he now refers to as “a bad idea.”
“I was too thin-skinned. I was not a good reporter,” he admits. “The irony now is that I am using these reporting and investigating skills for the first time in twenty years.”
“How did you go from a mediocre journalism student to an employee in the Department of Transportation?” I ask him. “Did you walk into the office and say, ‘Hi! I love trains?’”
“The ‘Rain Man’ portrayal you are giving me is not correct,” he quips.
“In February 1998, I walked into City Planning and I introduced myself to this guy and I said, ‘I’d like to volunteer here and learn,’ and eventually, they started paying me,” he says.
His work there was as disparate as standing on a corner with a clicker and counting passengers as they entered the subway to walking around New York making note of open areas for “air rights” building – that’s when you can build up, above a highway or train tracks.
Seims’s tenure at City Planning coincided with a new, cleaner era in the subway system. After significant reforms in the 1980s and ’90s, the MTA Capital Construction program was formed in July 2003 to improve transit infrastructure. Although this includes fun improvements such as wi-fi, the program mainly addresses important issues that riders can’t see, such as signal repairs and, simply, the things that keep trains running. “People who are younger or just moved here have much higher expectations because they don’t know what the subway used to be like,” Seims points out.
Ironically, the currently acceptable state of the subway may translate into some real problems on the political level, as it’s a lot more difficult to persuade policy writers and lawmakers to spend millions of dollars to maintain and upgrade the system when the needed changes aren’t as visible. “Going to people who are holding the money and saying, ‘We need money to maintain this level of service’ is not easy,” say Seims. “Pump rooms and hidden infrastructure are not sexy, but they are very necessary.”
“I think you can get awfully far for the price that you pay,” he goes on. “It’s going to be a constant tension between affordability and keeping revenue coming in. We had a five-cent fare [beginning in 1904] for the first forty-four years that the subway was running. And there is no way it should have remained five cents after World War I!”
The political pressure to keep the five-cent fare was overwhelming at the time, says Seims. Of course, there has always been a widespread desire to keep subway fares low and likely always will be. (Many New Yorkers know about the “pizza connection,” a cheeky economic rule of thumb that states that the cost of a subway ride will usually parallel the price of a slice of pizza.)
“I do think the subway is amazing,” Seims says. “The city couldn’t exist the way it is without it. The level of density and how we use our land would not be possible without being able to carry the millions of people that the system carries every day. It allows you to live without a car.”
Does Seims think locals should have a little more appreciation for the subway system?
“Look, I am not going [to] tell New Yorkers to love anything any more or less than they do. However, it is an immensely complicated system with an unbelievable amount of hidden infrastructure and hidden parts that make it go. And that needs to be kept in mind when you are inconvenienced.”
“Or,” I interject, “we can stop doing the scheduled service maintenance, go back to deferred maintenance and the system can go to hell in twenty years.”
“And see how you like that,” Seims says with shrug.
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Paul Hornschemeier is the author of the graphic novels “Mother, Come Home,” and the New York Times Best Seller “Life with Mr. Dangerous.” His animation appears on IFC’s “Comedy Bang! Bang!” and in the weekly web series “Forlorn TV,” found at forlornfunnies.com and youtube.com/forlorntv.